Hawaii Orchids Today
By Glenn I. Teves, UH County Extension Agent
Dendrobium orchids are a major export crop for Hawaii, and are broken into two segments, cut flowers and potted plants. Potted plant production is fairly new, and focuses on compact plants with short sprays facilitating ease of shipping.
The Hawaii dendrobium cut flower industry is based on one dendrobium cultivar, Dendrobium Jaquelyn Thomas, a primary cross of two species, Dendrobium phalaenopsis and Dendrobium gouldii. Together, the best qualities of both parents emerge in an intermediate-sized flower with a shelf life exceeding four to six weeks. This cultivar’s flower color can be found in white, pink, blush, two-tone, and purple. UH dendrobium hybrid flower sprays contain anywhere from 12 to 20 flowers, and can measure over two feet in length. Under ideal conditions, each plant can produce over 65 sprays a year. Off-grade or damaged orchid sprays are also sold for lei, which provides additional revenue.
An indication of Hawaii’s productivity is measured by the amount of new orchid cultivars registered with the International Register of Orchid Hybrids. In the 1950s, Hawaii breeders hit their peak in the number of registrations. Hawaii’s dominance in orchid breeding was evident as breeders from Thailand and the Philippines would purchase whole benches of orchids from Hawaii growers to take back home with them. The industry has downsized considerably as many of the old 442nd growers have passed away, and land values in these valleys have increased considerably.
Hawaii’s proximity to Asia proved to be an advantage at first in the development of dendrobium orchids, but soon became its downfall as other Asian countries followed Hawaii’s lead. With economic advantages such as cheap labor, cheap land, and a supportive government, nations such as Thailand in dendrobium and Taiwan in phalaenopsis expanded and soon dominated these orchid industries worldwide.
Over the last 25 years, Thailand has emerged as the world leader in both dendrobium cut flower and potted plant production, with technology and plant material originating from Hawaii. Many Thai students attended the University of Hawaii to learn orchidology, and taking this technology back home. State-of-the-art orchid laboratories driving the construction of large scale nurseries moved Thailand to the front of the class. Thailand’s proximity to European markets also allowed them to ship both sprays and potted plants there.
This loss in market-share has forced Hawaii dendrobium growers to redouble their efforts to create a new industry model. By utilizing Thai economies of scale in micropropagation, Hawaii growers now buy affordable potted plant seedlings from Thai laboratories which are sold to mainland markets, including big box stores. In addition, Thais have found the Hawaii lei flower market and is dominating this market, even shipping in sewn leis for one dollar each.
However, recent monsoon floods in Thailand have created shortages of lei material for graduations, and Hawaii growers are selling more flowers for lei. Farmers now realize they have to be more flexible and be able to change directions more quickly. For example, recent demands for potted plant orchids with red flowers fueled by Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Puerto Rico has shown that farmers cannot look at only one market for their products.
There are still opportunities for the growing of orchids in Hawaii, but it’s not business as usual. New markets, new varieties, new species, and new colors, have opened new doors for Hawaii growers. For free orchid publications and publications for sale, visit the UH CTAHR website at ctahr.hawaii.edu/site/Info.aspx.