Story By: Katie Young Yamanaka
Photo By: PF Bentley
With plastic laundry baskets strapped to
their waists, a group of pickers walk the rows of head-high trees on Dick
Wheeler’s Moloka‘i Plumeria Farm, expertly plucking the just-opened blooms and
dropping them into the bins.
The flowers’ journey of a thousand miles has
begun—one that carries a touch of home across the Pacific for special occasions
like graduations, weddings and hula competitions. “I’ve had numerous reports of
aunties and tutus [grandparents] breaking down in tears as soon as they open
the box and that scent fills the room,” Wheeler says. Work at the farm must be
done swiftly, because not only does mailing the fragile flowers ($.12 per bloom
or $12 a lei) require precision timing, but also because the FedEx truck comes
at 10:30 in the morning. “Nobody here works full time,” jokes Wheeler, who’s
been running the former apiary-turned-flower farm with his wife, Aome, for
A beekeeper by trade, Wheeler knew nothing
about Hawai‘i’s iconic flower before moving to Moloka‘i from North Dakota to
run the Moloka‘i Honey Company in 1984. But the forty small plumeria trees
growing right outside the barn sparked a big idea. Wheeler spent five years
planting his ten acres with 95 percent “classic yellow” plumeria and 5 percent
with vibrant pinks and reds. At first the farm sold locally to the tourist
industry and supplied two Lana‘i hotels with 150 plumeria lei daily, buying
every flower he could pick.
But then came the purple orchids from
Thailand, putting many local plumeria farms out of business. “They were cheap,
exotic and last a long time,” Wheeler says. “But they aren’t Hawai‘i.” So with
a little ingenuity and the right timing, Wheeler found a Mainland niche for his
plumeria, shipping boxfuls of blooms, one hundred to ten thousand at a time. Of
course, there are thousands of fallen flowers that never make it into the box.
After a decade of research, Wheeler has recently found a way to turn these
unshippable blooms into shippable form: an organic fragrance that matches the plumeria’s
unique floral scent.
While plumeria haven’t made him rich, they
have made Wheeler and many others happy. “It’s really cool to be able to export
aloha and send a piece of Hawai‘i to the Mainland,” he says.