From left, Jonie Oshiro, Karen Crutchfield and Lisa Tsunezumi work hard making and packing lei and taking orders for upcoming graduations at the Floral Mart in Hilo on Thursday. Oshiro, mother of owner Janice Oshiro, is retired but comes back to the shop to help during graduation season.
Thai orchid lei are for sale at the Floral Mart in Hilo on Thursday afternoon.
By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
As friends, family and loved ones seek to heap praise — and lei — on high school graduates this weekend, they are likely to feel their pocketbooks getting a little lighter than usual.
That’s because one of the most prolific exporters of orchids and other flowers used in lei, Thailand, has only managed about 10 percent of its usual output due to the 2011 monsoon flooding that wiped out a wide swath of that country’s flower industry, according to Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association.
“A few years ago, Bangkok got hit with a big, big storm,” he said Thursday. “They still have not recovered. It’ll take years to recover.”
Over the last 20 years, Tanouye said, growers throughout the state, and especially on the Orchid Isle, have slowly ceded ground to overseas suppliers like Thailand when it comes to producing flowers for lei.
“There was so much volume coming in at a very competitive price from Bangkok, that it set (price) ceilings on (Hawaii) growers. They couldn’t raise their prices. They just couldn’t get a return on their investment,” he said.
While Hawaii growers are capable of producing a wide variety of high-quality blooms, they just can’t match the high volume and low cost of some exporters, he explained.
“We have a very diverse line, providing a one-stop shop experience, but we don’t have an unlimited supply, so the prices tend to be higher,” he said.
As a result, Hawaii florists have imported more and more flowers for leis, and have even begun ordering pre-made lei from afar, said state Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-South Hilo, Puna, who serves as the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. As more flowers and leis are imported, Hawaii growers have dropped out of the business.
That reduction in availability of locally grown flowers has left the state vulnerable to shortages like the one it is experiencing now, during a period of high demand, he added.
“It’s a question of demand over supply,” Tsuji said. “Sometimes, seasonally, we have lots of activities that demand flowers: school activities, weddings, Mother’s Day. At this particular time of year, the shortage coincides with graduations, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and then we’re almost in June with lots of weddings.”
Valentine’s Day may be her busiest time of year, but high school graduations are nothing to sneeze at, said Janice Oshiro, owner of Floral Mart on Kinoole Street in Hilo.
“Especially this year, because they’re graduating early this year, and we just had Mother’s Day. So all these occasions are together. We’ve been very busy.”
She and her employees have been working extended hours, she said, and they’re having to get creative with obtaining the right flowers for their lei.
Generally speaking, only lillies are available locally, she said, so things like baby’s breath, roses, carnations and orchids must be imported.
This year, they’ve had to import long-stemmed carnations from Ecuador and then cut them to make their specialty double lei, Oshiro said.
The going price for such decadence? Seventy-five dollars.
“The double lei are definitely the most expensive,” she said. “I had a woman come in the other day and say that she used to be able to buy one for $5 in 1968.”
Tsuji said that in 2007 he submitted a bill to the Hawaii Legislature that would have worked to encourage more use of local flowers. But the measure ended up being very unpopular with many business owners in their testimony, and it died before a vote.
“I didn’t realize that a lot of entrepreneurial and long-time lei makers were against this bill,” he said. “If we should discourage importing these flowers, the cost of the end product — our traditional lei — would be very high and possibly discourage people from purchasing them.”
While the current shortage means higher prices for consumers, it is a bright spot for Hawaii growers, added Tanouye. The increase in demand and rise in prices means that they can now charge enough for their flowers to offset their costs and see a profit.
“It’s a frenzy right now,” he said. “Everybody’s got orders. They’ve got demand, and price is just going up, up, up. … Hawaii has the quality, and it has generations of growers and nursery men who know how to grow a quality, diverse crop. With the ceiling rising, it’s an opportunity right now.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.