Hawai‘i’s AJA Flower Growers and Florists Have Kept the Industry Thriving
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“An ‘It’ Flower for a Feminist Movement” read the headline of a Nov. 29, 2017, article in the New York Times. The headline was referring to the newest Marc Jacobs Beauty campaign featuring activist-model Adwoa Aboah. In the accompanying photo, Aboah holds a glossy anthurium that matches the cherry red shade of her Le Marc liquid lip crayon.
The NYT article went on to describe the big splash anthuriums were making in the New York fashion scene. Vases of anthuriums adorned the Glossier Showroom on Lafayette Street and Totokaelo’s store on Bowery. The flower also appeared in photo shoots for Uniqlo and Vogue magazine and in New York Fashion Week events. The list goes on and on.
That Times article also traced the path anthuriums had taken to reach Hawai‘i 130 years ago.
Anthuriums, a genus to some 100 species, are native to South America. French horiculturist and landscape designer Edouard Andre (1840-1911) brought them to France in 1876. Andre participated in the redesign of Paris and was eventually appointed the head gardener of “the City of Lights.” From France, the flower found its way to England, where the heart-shaped blossom caught the eye of Hawai‘i businessman Samuel Damon, who brought the flower to Hawai‘i in 1889 and had it planted on his estate.
From the gardens of Damon’s estate, anthurium plants began showing up in the yards of plantation camps homes and in other neighborhoods. Rumor had it that Damon’s “Robin Hoods” (his gardeners) were spreading “the wealth.” The son of missionaries, Damon had likely shared the flowers with his gardeners, who, in turn, shared them with their family and friends.
Before long, anthuriums were being grown on nearly all of Hawai‘i’s islands. Enterprising people would go around to these neighborhoods, purchase the pointy-nosed flowers and resell them. In no time at all, a cottage industry was born.
A few years later, botanists scored a major breakthrough when they developed a means of propagating anthurium plants from seeds rather than only from cuttings. Seed propagation allows growers to selectively breed the plant, which, in time, resulted in a proliferation of anthurium flowers in a variety of shapes and colors.
By the 1940s, Hawai‘i florists were starting to incorporate the flower, which proved quite hearty, into their floral arrangements. That opened the door for growers to expand their businesses. In time, anthuriums became a symbol of hospitality. They now grace hotel lobbies and adorn the grounds of resorts throughout the state.
Many of Hawai‘i’s early flower growers and florists were Japanese immigrant families who saw growing and selling flowers as a way to earn a living after plantation work.
Traditionally, Japan is known to be a spiritual and nature-loving society influenced by Buddhist and Shinto philosophies. It is fitting then that flower symbolism would coalesce with the Japanese way of life. Hanakotoba is the unique “language of flowers.” For example, the sakura blossom symbolizes life’s fleeting nature and wabi-sabi, or transcience and imperfection; the chrysanthemum is immediately associated with the emperor and the imperial family. Peony, lotus and carnations are also defined in hanakotoba. Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement recognized worldwide, gives life to flowers.
Given this cultural background, it’s not surprising that many of the early pioneers of Hawai‘i’s industry were of Japanese ancestry. Some of the early growers on the Big Island of Hawai‘i included the Saito, Matsuda and Akamine families, followed by the Oishi, Inouye, Kuwahara and Tanouye families.
Many Big Island residents still have fond memories of the Ebesugawa Sisters flower shop, which operated out of its Furneaux Lane space in Hilo for 22 years before closing for good in September 2012.
In 1932, their father had opened a produce store on Keawe Street as Ebesu’s, a shortened version of the family surname. Ebesu’s sold fresh fruits and vegetables and flowers until 1990, when the Ebesugawa sisters decided to retire and close the shop. Four months later, however, they decided to open a retail flower business just around the corner from the family’s previous store, calling it Ebesugawa Sisters flower shop. The sisters ran their flower shop until 2012 when they retired for good.
On O‘ahu, family florists like the Nakamotos (Beretania Florist), Fujikamis (Fujikami Florist), Watanabes (Watanabe Floral) and Itos (Stanley Ito Florist) have been serving the community for decades. The founders of these businesses were entrepreneurs seeking independence and flowers gave them the opportunity to realize their “American Dream.”
But the path to independence for those early pioneers meant overcoming many obstacles. They shared common stories of sacrifice and perseverance and a strong will to succeed.
The Beretania Florist story reflects the vision of Shigeichi Nakamoto. In 1921, when he was 18 years old, Shigeichi went to work at Kilby Florist in downtown Honolulu. Starting at the entry level, he worked his way up to creating floral arrangements, which came naturally for him, given his artistic talents. But Shigeichi was an entrepreneur at heart — his dream was to own his own flower shop, so he saved and saved, all the while learning everything he could about the business by observing and gaining hands-on experience. He also invested in real estate.
“After 25 years working for Mr. Kilby, he felt he could do this on his own, and possibly better,” said June Nakamoto, Shigeichi’s daughter in-law.
Shigeichi leased a portion of a building at 1293 South Beretania Street, and on Nov. 19, 1937, he and his wife Yukie, opened Beretania Florist. It was a huge risk, considering the world was at the tail-end of the Great Depression (1929 to 1938). Many sugar and pineapple jobs had been lost and the economy faced a long road to recovery.
Just over four years later, the unimaginable happened: Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, throwing America into war with Japan. Shigeichi’s son, David Nakamoto, a retired Buddhist minister, remembers the story his father told him.
“My dad was opening up the shop on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when he saw planes flying low overhead. He didn’t realize it at first, but found out later that they were Japanese warplanes,” said David.
With the country at war, the territory of Hawai‘i was immediately placed under martial law — and remained under martial law for nearly three years, until October 1944. A 6 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. curfew was imposed, including a territory-wide blackout. Shipping schedules were disrupted, wages were frozen and union activities were suspended.
How did Shigeichi’s fledgling business manage to survive under such conditions?
“My father was well-connected,” explained David Nakamoto. “He had customers like [developer] Walter Dillingham, [industrialist/shipbuilder] Henry Kaiser and [wealthy tobacco heiress] Doris Duke. Henry Kaiser’s wife loved flowers and we would go every week to decorate their Kähala home with white anthuriums.”
Shigeichi managed to get by during those difficult years and purchased the Beretania Street space he was leasing. He and his wife Yukie raised their five children in the living quarters behind the shop. When another space in the building became available, he purchased that one, too. And then another, and another, until he owned the entire building. The entire family contributed to the success of the business.
In 1968, at the age of 65, Shigeichi and Yukie retired, turning over the reins of Beretania Florist to their eldest son, Howard, and his wife, June.
Another breakthrough for anthuriums came in 1950, when Dr. Haruyuki Kamemoto, a horticulture professor at the University of Hawai‘i, established an anthurium research program within the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. His goal was to develop disease-resistant and novel anthuriums for Hawai‘i’s floral industry. The program was highly successful, leading to the creation of numerous commercial varieties of anthuriums that helped it become the state’s most valuable cut-flower.
The success of Kamemoto’s research program made growing anthuriums an attractive business venture for new growers like Harold Tanouye of Hilo.
Risk is inherent when starting any new business. For Harold, however, the risk was even greater: He had a wife and four children to support.
In 1976, at the age of 38, Harold mortgaged his home to start Green Point Nurseries in Pana‘ewa, located just outside of Hilo. He trusted in the future of the heart-shaped flower. Harold’s eldest son, Eric, the current president of Green Point Nurseries, said his father believed that island-grown flowers are intrinsic to Hawai‘i’s “sense of place” and that when flowers are sent to someone, the sender is sending a blossom, as well as the beauty and romance of Hawai‘i.
“My father would go on trips to the Mainland to sell his anthuriums. He would pound the pavement, going from one flower wholesaler to the next,” recalled Eric.
“He went to cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles and to New York and the Mid-Atlantic states. He also went to sell his anthuriums in Denver and Chicago and other states where United Airlines flew direct.”
On some trips, he would be gone for an entire month, Eric said.
“My mom held a job to help make ends meet. Being the eldest, I made sure my siblings got home from school and that we all did our homework. That, in a nutshell, is how Green Point got its start. It was a family endeavor from day one.”
Green Point Nurseries grew over the years. In time, Harold needed to expand his business in order to meet the growing demand for his anthuriums. He broke ground in a new agricultural subdivision in Kurtistown.
“My father was offered county water, but it came in a two-inch waterline. We had one of the first properties in the subdivision, and if he took water from that line, there would be little pressure left for the rest of the community,” Eric explained.
Instead, Harold declined the county water and installed an elaborate rainwater catchment system with reservoirs and electric pumps for their irrigation needs at a greater personal expense. “My father chose community first,” Eric said. “He was successful in business and he was a good steward of his community.”
Shigeichi Nakamoto, Professor Haruyuki Kamemoto and Harold Tanouye all realized their dreams, and their legacies live on today. June Nakamoto and her daughter, Celeste Nakamoto Farinas, and Celeste’s two sons, Reese and Beau Farinas, continue to operate Beretania Florist in the same store that Shigeichi Nakamoto opened over 80 years ago. Last year, the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce presented the family-owned and operated business with its Generational Award.
Professor Emeritus Dr. Haruyuki Kamemoto serves as a mentor to Dr. Tessie Davide Amore, who is now the lead researcher for the anthurium research program. Amore is also a student of contemporary floral design and ikebana, bringing an added dimension to the program, which will benefit her students’ educational experience.
Finally, Harold Tanouye did not pound all those miles of pavement to see his dream fade with his passing in 2013. He brought his son, Eric, on-board full-time in 1980, and Eric’s two sons, Chris and Jon, have also joined the company.
From plantation camp backyards to the swanky shops of New York City, the anthurium has come a long way. Little did Samuel Damon know that the anthurium plants he brought to Hawai‘i 130 years ago would impact so many lives — and livelihoods — for generations to come.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and most recently served as a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.