The Orchid Handlers ~ A hundred years ago there were virtually no orchids in Hawai‘i.

The Orchid Handlers ~ A hundred years ago there were virtually no orchids in Hawai‘i.

The Orchid Handlers

A hundred years ago there were virtually no orchids in Hawai‘i.  Sixty years ago the world decided to call Hawai‘i the “Orchid Capital of the World.”

Something happened.

This is the story of the unlikely conquest of the Hawaiian Islands by a family of flimsy flowering plants—the crafty, infinitely changeable, and seductive orchids. Lacking timber, speed, or even a halfway decent root system, orchids thrive all over the Earth by means of one keen strategy: They enlist the help of animals, all sorts of animals—flies, bugs, beetles, moths, birds, but the best assistant of all has proven to be humans. Humans feed them, fondle and photograph their flowers, love them more passionately than any does any wasp.  Humans help them reproduce, cross-breeding them to create new kinds. Let these numbers prove the point:  before humans got involved, orchids had managed to create twenty-four thousand kinds of themselves, making them one of the most successful plant families; today, however, thanks to humans, that ever-rising number has more than tripled. 

Those humans who helped with the conquest of Hawai‘i were just as unlikely to pull it off. Most of them bore Japanese names (or Chinese, or Korean). They were part of that generation of Asians in Hawai‘i who faced a daunting social challenge—the transition from near-slavery in the plantation camps to positions of security, prestige, and power in the Islands. Common sense would have kept such people far away from orchid plants.  In those days, orchids were so expensive, so wickedly hard to breed, and so fundamentally weird that only rich people could afford to fool with them. But Hawai‘i’s poor defied practicality in order to serve the orchids, and the orchids rewarded them with more and more beautiful kinds of flowers, the basis for a lucrative floriculture industry. 

Scientists would call the relationship of orchid and grower “symbiotic,” or mutually helpful. The humans have used the plants for their own enjoyment and profit; the plants have used the humans for their own invasion of Hawai‘i, which is the one earthly heaven that they could never quite reach on their own.


Hawai‘i’s importance to the larger orchid-growing world probably begins in 1954, when a small delegation of Island enthusiasts traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, for the first-ever World Orchid Conference. Before this time, the true heartland of orchid enthusiasm was Europe, whose great capitals had been receiving the booty of global exploration for two hundred years. Royalty and wealthy collectors had scooped innumerable species of orchids out of the American and Asian wilderness. They built elaborate conservatories, or “crystal palaces,” to house their collections. “Orchidmania” gripped England during the Victorian age. But the two World Wars changed all that. Largely because of the lack of heating fuel, many great collections perished. Many were shipped to safer locations—for example, the US. The basic point is that the center of orchid culture shifted during the twentieth century from Europe to the United States, especially California and Florida. Therefore, St. Louis made a good central point for a world conference. It also provided access to a few upstart hobbyists from the far-flung US territory called Hawai‘i. 

While at this conference, the Island upstarts offered to host the second conference, to be held three years later. The orchidists of the world agreed. In 1957, they descended on Honolulu.

The fellow selected to be show chairman for this unprecedented gathering was a thirty-something Honolulu man, Ben Kodama. Ben had inherited a money-making orchid collection from his father Takami Kodama, an insurance agent turned orchidophile. The elder Kodama grew the first potted orchids that were affordable to Hawai‘i’s working class—seedlings in two-inch pots that sold for fifty cents apiece at the Kress Store. (Kress was a chain of five-and-dime stores that launched in the 1930s.) Takami Kodama was the Johnny Appleseed of Hawai‘i’s orchid culture.


Last month I met Ben Kodama at his four-plus-acre nursery in Waiʻanae, in scrubby countryside tucked between ridges and pig farms at the coastal end of O‘ahu’s Waiʻanae Range.

I parked on gravel and waited by my car while a small dog barked half-heartedly. One side of the driveway had boxy little buildings made of fading plywood, glass louvers, and corrugated tin. The other side, and straight ahead, was all shadehouse—an acre and a half of orderly benches covered tightly with robust plants. Twelve-foot ceilings gave the houses a vast, aviary feeling, a breeze-catching airiness.

Pretty soon he came walking out of the far shadehouse, unhurried but sturdy for a guy nearing eighty. His apparel was Island classic: rubber slippers, tee-shirt, and canvas discount-store pants.

And he wore a baseball cap that said “442nd”—referring to the Second World War fighting force in which the Japanese-Americans of Hawai‘i fought so valiantly. Ben served almost a year with the 442nd during the post-combat Allied occupation of Italy. Then he returned to take over his father’s orchid nursery in 1947.

I asked about the 1957 conference.  He said: “I was a young boy at that time, barely in my thirties. The first conference in St. Louis was not well organized—so I developed the first show rules and regulations. People came from all over the world. There were sixteen hundred registrants.”

According to all reports, the world guests were knocked out by what they saw. The Honolulu Orchid Society, less than twenty years in existence, pulled together a lavish display of some twenty-two thousand novel hybrids, all Hawai‘i-bred and in bloom. Roughly that many people streamed into the Honolulu Academy of Arts to ogle the exotic displays. Guests were amazed by the ingenuity of the Island breeders, and even more by the way they worked—in back yards under wisps of shadecloth, or right out in the open. No “crystal palaces” needed. They saw unschooled amateurs doing delicate, laboratory-style propagation work in their garages. People accustomed to coddling plants in heated and humidified incubators marveled to see orchids growing in open fields like corn. They went home calling Hawai‘i the “Orchid Center of the World,” and the stage was set for Islanders with names like Kodama, Miyamoto, Fukumura, Takafuji, and Kawamoto (among many others) to become international celebrities.

Celebrities? In the world of orchids, very much so. Ben told me: “I didn’t want to be an orchidist. I wanted to be a medical doctor. But when my father died, my family asked me to take over. I wanted to help people get well—but if I was a doctor, I wouldn’t be world-famous like I am today.”

Measures of fame include the Award of Distinction, the top honor bestowed by the International Phalaenopsis Alliance. Each year, the American Orchid Society (AOS) presents its Benjamin Kodama Dendrobium Alliance Award.

To deflect some attention from Ben Kodama, who is just one of many renowned Island orchidists, let’s notice that the AOS created two other such honorary trophies in the names of Hawai‘i breeders—the Cattleya Alliance Award for Calvin Miyamoto of O‘ahu, and the Vanda Alliance Award for Roy Fukumura of Maui. In short, of its thirteen top awards, the AOS has name three in honor of Island growers.

Ben took me into his office, a room so jammed with old heaps and cardboard boxes that only a tiny footpath remained, curving from the door to a desk. He pulled out the Royal Horticultural Society’s registry of all new hybrids between 1991 and 1995, a thousand-page tome that is the world’s authority on developments in the orchid world. Flipping through the book, he showed me his name, ten times here, six times there. In the minute that he flicked through the book, I spotted his contributions more than a hundred times. In his lifetime, Ben Kodama has registered tens of thousands of new plants.


What is it about orchids, that they have such power to capture the hearts and the minds of ordinary people? Their basic approach to life seems so off-beat that it would naturally doom them to obscurity.

Puny herbs with lax, strap-shaped leaves, they occur most commonly on tree branches or on top of rocks. To survive without soil, they develop corky protective sheathing over their stubby roots, which dabble in the debris and dew that gathers in small notches and pockets. Although some orchids do grow in the soil, sometimes stretching and clambering like vines, they never develop much heft. Some grow on decaying flesh. Two species from Australia actually live underground their whole lives, except for the odd occasion when they poke tiny blossoms into the open air.

Orchids pour all their earthly vigor into one paramount gamble: sexual reproduction. They are the Earth’s most ingenious inventors of flowers. Basically simple six-part affairs, these flowers include one petal that twists itself into a gaudy, come-and-get-me lure called the labellum (from the Latin word for lip). These labella have an uncanny ability to use shape, color, and aroma to attract the precise assistant that the plant needs, whether it’s a butterfly, a bee, a reptile, or a prom queen. Flowers will mimic a specific insect of a region—sometimes a specific regional variety or race of one insect species—reproducing the shape, color, and smell of a sexually receptive female. A deluded male will plunge into the flower then stagger away, addled and stuck with pollen, ready to “mate” with the next orchid he finds. Or the flowers will mimic the insect’s enemy, drawing the creature into a useless battle during which the blossom will stick a gob of pollen on the foolish thing’s head. Some flowers smell like rotting flesh for the same purpose, or like chocolate, cinnamon, coconut, lemon, honey, or a freshly cut cucumber. Add to this the incredible range of color—the only hue missing from this plant’s palette is pure black—and wacky shapes such as tendrils that tremble in the slightest breeze or gooey traps that force insects to slide through narrow tunnels. The orchid flower’s seductive precision is a true natural marvel.  

Then an orchid will produce its seed capsule—the Holy Grail for which breeders will wait seven years or more. This capsule ripens, splits, and scatters into the wind thousands if not millions of dust-like seeds, the smallest seeds you’ll find in the world of flowering plants. As Susan Orlean writes in her popular book The Orchid Thief: “One pod has enough seeds to supply the world’s prom corsages for the rest of eternity.” Most of these perish, of course. Some have the rare luck of landing in a suitable niche, where they survive by sucking nutrients from microscopic fungi.

Contrary to what you might think, orchids are not restricted to hothouse jungles. They inhabit the stark meadows of Patagonia, the icy dales of Alaska, the daunting summits of the Himalayas, and the killing deserts of Africa and Australia. Every state in the U.S.A. has at least a few endemic species, including Minnesota, whose state flower (Cypripedium reginae) is an orchid. Some of the richest orchid regions of the world—South America, Indonesia, the Philippines—surround Hawai‘i on the “Pacific Rim.” New Guinea has more native orchids than anywhere else in the world.

But Hawai‘i has none.

Well, almost none. The native flora of Hawai‘i includes three species of orchids, but these are so obscure that two types did not even score a Hawaiian name. The “Orchid Center of the World” with its ideal climate never developed a significant orchid population of its own.

Undoubtedly Hawai‘i’s remoteness, hedged by thousands of miles of open sea, stymied the ingenuity of the orchid family. No matter how hard the wind blew, those dust-like seeds could not withstand the passage. Despite their skill at seducing bugs and birds to do their bidding, the orchids had to wait until just the right suckers came along. When the era of sailing ships, then airplanes, arrived, orchids found their perfect Hawaiian pollinators—human beings like Ben Kodama and the members of the Honolulu Orchid Society.


In Hawai‘i, as elsewhere, the very first people to grow orchids were the elite. During the early 1900s the names of orchid hobbyists were closely related to the names of executives in the Islands’ large agribusiness firms. One orchidist joked to me: “The rich haoles had three status symbols—a piano in a window, a library of unread books, and a shadehouse

These first collections were stocked by plant hunters, scouts sent by the sugar and pineapple companies to search the Pacific for new genetic material. One of these scouts, John Moir, returned in 1917 from the Philippines with boxes of live orchids. Moir’s son Goodale became a leading figure in the early days of hybridization, and the orchid breeders I spoke with all mentioned him with a certain fondness.

During the same era, Dr. Harold Lyons (eventually the first director of Foster Gardens in Honolulu) returned from Singapore with Vanda Miss Joaquim, the orchid that later generated great revenues for Hawai‘i as the “Princess Aloha Flower.” In 1931 two brothers, Milton and Robert Warne, started one of Honolulu’s first orchid shops, on Beretania Street. Milton ran the shop, and Robert—an agronomist for Del Monte Pineapple—shipped specimens from the Philippines.

In those days, however, orchids cost too much for the common man. Even in 1941, when the Kress Stores started selling old man Kodama’s inexpensive seedlings, the price was a stretch. Ben told me: “In those days, fifty cents could buy your meals for the whole day.”

And yet it was the shadehouse laborers—those who watered and tended the owner’s plants—who got seriously hooked. Little by little, orchids began popping up in back yards, with exotic specimens and cultivation secrets traded among close circles of friends. I’ve heard several stories in which grandpa went out and squandered a dollar, or ten dollars, of the family’s few funds on his floral addiction, then hid the purchase in a buddy’s back yard to avoid the wrath of grandma.

In 1939, these working-class growers formed a club. Officially it was called the Honolulu Orchid Society, distinct from the all-white Pacific Orchid Society. Privately, as a joke, these orchid pioneers called themselves “The Pupules”—the crazies. 

Not so crazy. They were poised at the brink of a multi-million-dollar floriculture industry—and world fame.


I stopped in ʻAiea to visit with the current president of the Honolulu Orchid Society, Williette Wong. Her late husband Eddie was a beloved figure in O‘ahu orchid circles. A fireman at Hickam Air Force Base, he was a pure hobbyist who never sold a plant but dedicated his benign, smiling presence to the HOS and to an ever-growing international network of orchid-based friendships. Eddie passed in 2000, and now Williette—who claims she never had interest in orchids (“I only slept with the man!”)—manages the ramshackle backyard shadehouse and maintains an orchid display wall at the Kāhala Mandarin Hotel. She showed me pictures of Eddie’s finest of many floral creations—a huge butter-yellow blossom with ruffly purple labellum—that he named “BLC Williette Wong ‘The Best.’”

She lamented the HOC’s enrollment drop, now at three hundred. “We had a thousand when Ben Kodama was president. They’re making people different now,” she said. Her theory is that people can no longer afford the slow lifestyle. “We used to take a full week off to prepare the orchid show. Now we can’t do that.”

Ben said something similar: “The connoisseurs are all gone. Now people are just looking for bargains.”

But the facts of commercial orchid growing in Hawai‘i show an ever-escalating economy. Total annual sales of orchid products in Hawai‘i (potted plants, cut flower stems, and single blossoms) are now fifty times what they were thirty years ago, jumping from half a million dollars in 1970 to over twenty-five million recently.

Dr. Ingelia White, who teaches orchidology as part of the plant biotechnology degree program at Windward Community College, agrees that “Breeding today is not so big a hit, like in the past. Breeding takes time.” But she is excited about new technologies and new entrepreneurial opportunities for young Hawai‘i growers, an excitement that she and many in the University of Hawai‘i system are conveying to their students. For example, UH scientists are among world leaders in developing new “gene transformation” technology, a means of working with the crafty DNA of orchid plants to quickly evoke just about any variation of color, hardiness, size, and habit latent within the plants. We may even be seeing a true black-flowering orchid someday.

Is the age of the “Pupule” waning—the astonishing period when backyard enthusiasts poured their patient passion into the introduction and first invention of orchids in Hawai‘i?

Certainly the orchids themselves won’t be waning, not now that they’ve found the “Orchid Center of the World.” No.  They are way too smart for that.

Thank you to Paul Wood for sharing this piece with all of us.


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