In 1979, three women in Houston desperate for plumeria founded the Plumeria Society of America. Since then, regional clubs have sprung up in Texas, California, Florida and Arizona. There is another in Australia and interest in Japan and China.
Today I’m having breakfast with the man who has fueled the flower frenzy: Jim Little, the premier hybridizer in the plumeria world. He helped kick-start the Plumeria Society of America when he provided some of its first cuttings nearly thirty years ago. He’s gone on to create hundreds of hybrid plumerias in a wild array of shapes, colors and fragrances.
Even if you’re already a plumeria enthusiast, you’ve probably never heard of Little—and that’s just the way he likes it. Though he’s a giant in this plant world, the retired photography professor and now full-time plumeria farmer doesn’t make any public appearances or presentations. Nor does he have a storefront or even a web site. Instead, he receives and fulfills orders for plumeria via his post office box in Hale‘iwa.
“If you want anything from me, you have to mail me. A few of my old customers know how to reach me, but no one new gets my phone number,” says Little. “Some people go to the local post office, and they ask around about how to reach me. Jeez, that really bugs me!”
We’re dining at busy Café Haleiwa, and in between bites of waffle and sausage, Little expounds on plumerias with the enthusiasm and wonder I’d expect from someone who’d just discovered the flower. I’m surprised and more than a little relieved, because I half-expected that I’d be meeting the J.D. Salinger of the plumeria world. Instead, I got a sunny Mister Rogers.
Little, well into his sixties, is tall and fit. He discovered plumerias when he taught at Honolulu’s Punahou School in the late 1960s: After trimming the large Singapore tree that grew behind his house on campus, he planted the cuttings in old coffee cans. He took a trunkful to a local store, and they quickly sold out. Several years later, Little and his family moved to Pupukea to be closer to his new teaching job at Leeward Community College, and also so he could have more room to grow plumerias. He started with a couple of acres and built his collection with plants from UH’s Criley and collector Donald Angus. He also explored Island yards and streets, looking for more specimens.
“I’d just knock on people’s doors and ask them if I could have a cutting from their trees,” he says. “In almost every case, they said yes. I would come back from trips to the neighbor islands with suitcases filled with plumeria cuttings.”
Running out of space, Little acquired two more acres in Waialua. But he filled those up, too, and after the town’s sugar plantation closed in 1996, he was able to lease a much larger piece of land in the hills outside of Hale‘iwa. He keeps the site’s location and total acreage a secret, but he will say that on twenty-two of his acres, he has more than 400 cultivars and thousands of trees.
Although he’s been collecting and selling plumerias for more than thirty years, Little has been seriously hybridizing only for the last ten. He learned the basic techniques from Bill Moragne, a Kaua‘i sugar plantation manager and orchid hybridizer. On his first effort, Little got lucky. Out of thirty or forty “babies,” he got one that was a beauty: a plant with pink flowers shaped like pansies that he eventually named JL Pink Pansy.
After breakfast, Little surprises me again when he spreads his palms out on the table, leans in and asks, “So, do you want to see some plumerias?” I’m honored—and the immediate answer is “Yes.”