The Divergent Lives of Lei

Joyce and Harold Fukushima make lei at their flower farm in Kula. Photo by Viola Gaskell.

Joyce Fukushima, 69, and her husband, Harold, 72, live down a dusty driveway off Naʻalae Road in Kula on the same property where her father farmed vegetables for decades. Her father’s vegetable plots have grown fallow in recent years, but Harold and Joyce have kept their plumeria, ʻilima, and crown flower bushes irrigated, upright, and blossoming in the intensifying heat. 

“We used to pick the ʻilima every three days,” Harold said. “Now, we have to pick them every day or they will start to wilt before they are completely open—if the deer don’t get to them first.”Hawaiʻi’s average annual temperatures have seen new highs since 2016 according to state data

Farming flowers is not easy on Maui. Aside from newer threats including deer and intensifying heat, longstanding hindrances such as insects, sparse and expensive labor, and high real estate prices show no sign of abating. The Fukushimas are a novelty these days; the couple, who say they plan to retire soon, are some of the last commercial lei makers on-island who almost exclusively use their own flowers. 

Twice a week, Joyce and Harold make 50 to 100 lei and deliver them to Foodland stores throughout the island. Now and then, when they have a request for tuberose or orchids, they buy blooms from Maui Floral, an upcountry grower and wholesaler that sells flowers and lei to supermarkets and hotels on-island. 

Lei made by Harold and Joyce Fukushima from the crown flower and ‘ilima on their farm.

Maui Floral grows protea and other tropicals, while procuring lei flowers and pre-made lei from Hawaiʻi, Thailand, and South America. Carver Wilson, who started Maui Floral with his wife, Maureen, 45 years ago, said he imports around half of his lei product and sources the other half from within Hawaiʻi. 

“I’d like to buy all of our flowers in Hawaiʻi,” Carver said, “but the cost and availability makes it difficult.” He added that Hawaiʻi weather contributes to the unpredictability of supply, whereas in Thailand, “they have the perfect climate for dendrobium  orchids.”  

When he was young, “almost all of the lei flowers came from Hawaiʻi,” Carver said. But as global trade exploded after 1970, opening Hawaiʻi up to international imports, blooms from Thailand, Taiwan, and South America presented a cheaper alternative to Hawaiʻi flowers.  

“Fifty years ago, Kimo Drive in Kula was all carnation farms—small farms dedicated to growing carnations for lei,” he said. “They are all gone now—competition came, farmers got older and retired, things changed.”

Hawaiʻi farms once produced many of the bright purple dendrobium  orchid blooms used in-state. In 2014, the 27 farms growing the floral emblem of tourism sold nearly 6 million blooms, but by 2018 only 18 farms remained, and the number of blooms sold dropped to 3.5 million. At the same time, sales of the less importable, more fragile plumeria dropped from 12 million blooms to 7 million. 

In the past 20 years, Hawaiʻi-grown lei flower sales in general declined more than 50%, from $3.5 million in 1998 to $1.7 million in 2018. Aside from high labor and land costs for farmers, specific incidents have had a lasting effect on local supply chains. 

Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaiʻi Floriculture and Nursery Association, said that Hawaiʻi flower farms have had a hard time recovering from hits to the tourism industry, including the attack on the Twin Towers and the 2008 recession. Then in 2018, Hawaiʻi Island floriculturists lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when their orchids were destroyed by the Kilauea eruption. “I think that did some really lasting damage,” Tanouye said. “When things like that happen, supply shifts, and it’s really hard to recover.” 

Andaz Maui, a resort in Wailea, orders around 3,000 white orchid lei and 2,000 kukui lei per month, plus 2,000 purple orchid blooms per week for lei making classes. Nakai Zaima, assistant director of operations, said he would prefer to support Hawaiʻi flower farms but he’d had difficulty finding vendors who steadily met their demand. 

“Supply here isn’t as steady because if we have a dry season or if there’s a heatwave or heavy rain, it typically won’t allow for us to order the quantity we need, whereas when they come from overseas, we have a steadier supply.” Zaima said. Andaz Maui’s supplier, Leis by Ron in Honolulu, orders lei that now fly from Thailand to Los Angeles to Honolulu before arriving in Wailea. 

Next generation: The foragers

Noah Harders forages ginger from the roadside in Waikapu. By Viola Gaskell.

At the foot of the West Maui Mountains, Noah Harders, 27, picks ginger on the side of the road, a stone’s throw from his family home in Waikapu. A man in a white pickup waves as he drives by. “That’s my uncle,” Harders said, “it’s all family around here.”

Harders is picking silky, yellow ginger and succulent, white turmeric flowers to make a floral mask that he will don, style, photograph, and post to his increasingly popular Instagram profile @Waikapu. Harders has posted nearly 60 of his masks since he started making them in 2019. 

Inspired by a wide range of creative lineages, from traditional Hawaiian weaving and lei-making to science fiction and high fashion, Harders says the concepts of his masks usually start with the plants and other materials he finds, as do his fantastic floral installations and atypical lei made from ginger and protea petals that he cuts to an identical size and strings immaculately.

“It has become this whole process for me of going out and exploring and finding these things in nature,” he said. “So as much as I could use leftover flowers from weddings or buy materials, it just doesn’t inspire me as much as it does to go into an open field and find that, ‘Oh my god, there are hundreds of tiny little flowers on the ground—I’m just gonna sit here for two hours and pick them up.’”

For years, lei appeared to be heading toward commercialization, another fixture of Hawaiian culture adapted and marketed en masse to give tourists the feeling of ‘aloha.’ For the millions of tourists arriving in Maui Nui, ‘aloha’ became synonymous with garlands of purple orchids flown 6,600 miles from Thailand to Hawaiʻi and placed around their necks in the lobbies of corporate-owned hotels. 

The undercurrent of lei traditions amongst locals has not disappeared; high-school seniors are still adorned with lei on graduation day and, aside from COVID, Lei Day (May 1) remains a vibrantly floral, fragrant affair. But aside from local politicians and hotel employees, lei have become increasingly novel for locals, adornments reserved for special occasions once or twice a year.

Lauren Shearer, the Maui lei maker behind ultra-sustainable brand Hawaiʻi Flora and Fauna, has been redirecting the spotlight with her eccentric, asymmetrical, and wabi sabi-esque lei. The 31-year-old artist sees lei as wearable art, rich with history, but ripe to experimentation. “I try to put a lei on every day,” Shearer said. 

About seven years ago, lei makers like Shearer and floral artists like Harders started what has since been dubbed a “lei renaissance”—a new generation of artisans from Hawaiʻi prioritizing sustainability and a sense of place over a cheap, consistent supply.

Shearer and Harders are floral artists but first they are foragers. Both grew up on-island making lei for special occasions, birthdays, and Lei Day, but it wasn’t until they returned to Maui after attending college on the Mainland and Oahu that they turned their attention to more atypical foliage, from palm bracts to night blooming jasmine, that grew all around them, often by the roadside.

Harders said he was discouraged by the iconicism of dendrobium. “We barely even grow purple orchids here, so to have them coming in by the thousands makes me like, ‘Wait a second—how is this helping the local economy? How is this Hawaiian? How is this authentic?’”

At a resort in Wailea, Shearer was given a lei made from purple orchids and plastic crown flower beads. “I counted 32 plastic crown flower beads in the lei, and all I could think was, ‘I really hope tourists don’t think they can throw their lei in the ocean and make a wish with this lei!” 

The Four Seasons and Marriott hotels order specialty lei from Shearer for their VIP guests, but the vast majority—thousands of lei each month—are made from robust dendrobium orchids flown in from Thailand. “I think they would love to give all of the guests these kinds of lei, local lei,” Shearer said, “but at the price point they can’t scale it.”

Lei made by Shearer from flowers she foraged and sourced from the Fukushimas. Photo by Viola Gaskell.

Shearer’s lei are considered specialty, but there are farmers in-state who grow plumeria by the thousands who might stand a chance competing with imported lei prices. Zaima said that the price per out-of-state bloom increased from 6 cents to 15 cents during the pandemic, meaning that for Andaz, plumeria lei made on Maui are priced competitively. But after he ordered around 5,000 lei in a month from a local vendor, only to receive 2,200, he returned to relying on Leis by Ron and their Thai orchids. 

“Honestly it’s not really about the price,” Zaima said. “It’s all about being able to continue to provide us with a consistent, steady stream of lei.” How the flowers were grown and preserved, and the carbon footprint of flying them across the Pacific are secondary concerns for now. 

Carver, of Maui Floral, said he sees the divergent paths of lei as part of a larger socioeconomic reality. “It is like food culture in a way: On the one hand you have an expensive, carefully sourced, curated lei, and then you have low-cost, high-volume, mass-produced lei.”

He added that both genres have a place in 21st century Hawaiʻi, where the tourism industry’s growth has outpaced all forms of local production from lei flowers to tropical fruits. “I’ve basically concluded that one of the most important things is the spirit in which the lei is given,” he said. 

Shearer agrees that even mass-produced, imported lei have a purpose, but says she hopes that rather than import hikes, future growth happens here, where “the community is working towards a super natural, sustainable market. That is the main direction that everyone seems to be wanting to go in.”


Viola Gaskell