I stopped in Aiea to visit the current president of the Honolulu Orchid Society, Williette Wong. Her late
husband Eddie was a beloved figure in Oahu 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 an interest in orchids ("I only slept with the man!")—manages the ramshackle backyard shadehouse and maintains an orchid display wall at the Kähala Mandarin. She showed me pictures of Eddie’s finest floral creation, a huge butter-yellow blossom with ruffly purple labellum that he named "BLC Williette Wong The Best.’"
She lamented the drop in HOC’s enrollment, which now stands at 300. "We had 1,000 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 Hawaii show an ever-ecalating economy. Total annual sales of orchid products in Hawaii (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 $25 million today.
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 entrepreneurial opportunities for young Hawaii growers, an excitement that she and many in the University of Hawaii 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 that’s latent within the plants. We may even see a true black orchid someday.
The Age of the Pupule—the astonishing period when backyard enthusiasts poured their patient passion into orchids—may be waning, but certainly the orchids themselves won’t be, not now that they’ve found the Orchid Center of the World. No, they are way too smart for that. HH