The bloom is off the rose, so to speak, or, in this case, the plumeria.
According to the Hawaii Flowers and Nursery Products Annual Summary, released last September by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, production of most lei flower in the Islands has continued a withering five-year decline.
In 2002, 14 growers reported selling 25.2 million plumeria blossoms worth $604,000. In 2006, 15 plumeria growers reported selling 12.7 million flowers valued at $372,000. Pikake growers reported even sharper declines. In 2002, nine growers sold 81,000 blossoms valued at $242,000. In 2006, five growers sold 23,000 flowers worth $60,000. Carnation and tuberose growers, who also experienced similar sales drops, stopped reporting sales figures in 2005.
What’s the reason for this mass die off of Hawaii lei flowers? It’s hard to come up with a definitive answer, but, according to Dr. Richard Criley, professor of horticulture at the University of Hawaii’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, the decline most likely has global origins. Factory farms in Southeast Asia and South America produce flowers, such as dendrobiums and carnations, more cheaply and in larger quantities than Island growers. In addition, post-9/11 security measures have curtailed lei-greeting activity at the airport, a previously reliable market for flowers.
“Certainly the Thais and their in-shipments of pre-strung lei have had a marked impact, but I would also guess that all the people running the tours aren’t buying lei like they used to,” says Criley. “There used to be a whole slew of people waiting by the gates with lei in hand. Now, you have to wait at the baggage area, which isn’t as easy.”
The only lei flower on the list that saw steady growth over the past five years was the Miss Joaquim vanda orchid, an older variety, which was wildly popular in Hawaii during the 1930s. In 2002, four growers reported sales of $87,000. Five years later, six growers reported sales of $425,000.
According to Criley, vanda blossoms aren’t very good travelers, so they aren’t grown for export by overseas farms. The small up-tick in sales may indicate a rediscovery of an old-time favorite flower by savvy consumers: “To make a vanda lei requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 flowers,” says Criley. “Of course, the old-style lei, the flat one, which uses only the principal lip petals, requires many, many more flowers. That would account for the increase right there.”
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