David Yearian is, by Tsuneo Iwami’s standards, the champion ambassador of the current generation of cultivators who are carrying Hawai‘i ti into the twenty-first century. Over the span of four decades, Yearian has bred a few hundred unique varieties of ti—and in the process he has transformed his Waimanalo estate on O‘ahu into a two-acre showcase garden.
Yearian’s aptly named nursery, Ti’s Unlimited, is a shrine to Cordyline. Fed by perpetual stream water and sunshine, the six hundred varieties of ti found here are radiant. The Pa‘ele’s glossy maroon leaves rise over one another flawlessly in tiers. Directly below them, the Miniature Purple Prince rivals a kaleidoscope with its symmetry. The Blushing Bride flushes bubblegum pink at the crown before blending into dark green leaves below.
Yearian is, in many ways, heir to the ti enthusiasts of yesteryear. He began working as a yard boy for Carin Procter in Nu‘uanu in the late 1970s, and it was she who kindled his interest in the numerous varieties this plant’s seeds could produce. Sometime after, Yearian met landscape painter Hiroshi Tagami, who at the time had been breeding ti commercially for well over a decade. It was Tagami who helped Yearian cross-pollinate his first batch of cultivars. From that planting sprouted what would become his first commercial hybrid: a voluptuous, large-leafed pink variety he named for his mother, Beverly.
Almost every December when the ti begins to flower, Yearian goes through the same ritual he has undertaken since he hybridized Beverly some twenty-five years ago. After selecting the ti he thinks will breed well with each other, he takes a thin-tipped artist’s brush and smears the pollen from one plant onto the pistils of another. After four or five hours the flowers close, and in three months, swollen berries hang off their stems. From each berry, five to seven black seeds are squeezed out, planted into flats and grown. After the passage of a few winters, Yearian can at last make out the color and shape of each plant. At this point he starts yanking out the undesirables. And he’s very discriminating: Of the roughly five hundred seeds sowed each year, only a few will become commercial hybrids. “I make sure that they don’t look like any of the others that are already out there,” he says. As proof he points to his latest creation, the Ros Miller, a novel beauty that sports dusty pink, green and purple leaves that twist into loose corkscrews.
As much as he’s tending to new creations, Yearian is also preserving older varieties that are close to extinction. Doing so, he says, honors the efforts of those who bred them. One ti in particular stands out. In the late 1980s, Procter gave Yearian a Blushing Bride, a Tagami creation that was the last of its kind. After more than two decades of vigilance, Yearian has now propagated them back to number eighty healthy plants.
“Tagami has had a profound influence on me, not just as a gardener, but as a person,” Yearian says. “As a tribute to him, I want to keep this plant from disappearing. That way, a part of his legacy can live on for future generations.”