Orchid Friends Indeed

By Carol Zakahi, a memoir of her experiences relating to Vanda Miss Joaquim, the focus of her beautiful display at the 30th Anniversary Show and Sale

In the year of 1957, little did I know of the world outside of Hawaii. Being 13 years of age, what I had learned from my parents and school teachers was of most importance. Life was simple and carefree in Kona, having fun with little that we had and just plain hard work in the fields of coffee. Luxuries, we did not have. We did not have new shoes or new clothes, always hand me downs. My mom worked for wealthy people that owned homes dotting the Kona coastline and she would bring home shoes and clothes for us.

One particular house was owned by the late Col. Lester and Irma Bryan. It was Col. Bryan that made such a great impression on me that I will never forget. I used to go down to clean the house with my mom and as always, we made the beds, vacuumed, and dusted the place. Col. Bryan always slept on a bunk bed and I learned how to make the tucks required for his bed. I guess the years in the military could not be taken out of Col. Bryan. Looking at Mrs. Bryan’s bed, one would think that the queen slept there. They lived so near the ocean and it was a beautiful sight. The house was furnished with a piano and a library along with things that we did not have, living up in the coffee fields. It was interesting to see silverware and dishes nicely filed in drawers and things in orderly fashion. At our home, we grew up with chopsticks, an outdoor toilet, washing clothes in a tub, no indoor plumbing, hanging light bulbs, no TV or radio.

One day, while dusting his books, Col. Bryan came to me and asked me if I liked books. Of course I liked books. We had some books but nothing like those that he had. The library in his house was huge and to be asked if I wanted books was beyond my wildest dreams. Col. Bryan was the first forester in Hawaii and had made quite a lot friends in Hawaii. Anyway, here I stood before him and I was just stunned when he told me that I could have any two books from his library. I looked at all the books and was just overwhelmed. I picked out two books, one was “The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter” and the other one was “The Tropical Garden”. I did not even have an interest in orchids nor had I kept a garden but somehow, I wanted those books. The first one was published in 1821 and the other one was published in 1936.

Here I am today and 30 years a member of our local orchid club and loving this journey that has given me such an adventure. I reflect upon years past and treasure the times I had with Col. Bryan and his generosity way back when I was too young to know any better.

The pieces of this story started to come together in year of 2002 when it made me realize that these things do not happen every day.

Our orchid club has an annual Big Island Trip around the island to search for orchids. On one particular trip, we stopped at this famous garden, Nani Mau Gardens in Hilo, for lunch. After lunch, as we paid for our lunches, I spotted the gift shop and sprinted in while the others got onto the bus. I spotted a book that had a ½ price off and grabbed it just because it had an orchid on one page. I bought it and got on the bus. The title was “A History of the Orchid” and it looked interesting with some pictures of the “Makers of Orchid History” but not much orchid pictures. I started to read it and as page after page, there in the development of an industry in orchids, Mr. Lester Bryan was mentioned. Christened Leicester Winthrop Bryan, the retired colonel of the U.S. Army infantry was born in Boston and raised in Massachusetts. He had come to Hawaii after World War I in 1921 and began work as a forester with the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association. A year later, he went to work for the Territory of Hawaii as a forestry officer and continued with supervising the planting of more than 10 million trees during his career here, including the redwoods of Mauna Kea and the eucalyptus groves that grace the Big Island.

On an assignment in the Far East in the 1930’s for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association, he saw Vanda Miss Joaquim at the Singapore Botanical Gardens and realized almost immediately that this orchid could successfully be grown outdoors in Hawaii. Obtaining twenty eight cuttings of the plants from the gardens, he took them back to Hilo where he propagated them by stem cuttings. Very shortly, other growers saw the potential of this orchid as a paying crop and within a few years there were thousands of islanders growing it, bringing his cuttings into 10,000 blooming plants. His efforts launched an orchid-growing industry in Hawaii. The orchid, Vanda Miss Joaquim went on to become one of the island’s leading commercial orchid-growing centers of the world.

The journey involving Vanda Miss Joaquim had begun. In the year 1982, the Kona Daifukuji Orchid Club was formed, led by our advisor, Tom Kadooka. His intense knowledge and experience of orchids gave us the basics of orchid growing. At the beginning of our club history, he had a field of Vanda Miss Joaquim. He grew and marketed the blossoms of the vanda and also selected a special cultivar (a winter variety that produced more flowers during the cool months, when blossoms were scarce). He told us the blossoms were 3 cents per blossom then. This deep-purple clone graced the dinner plates of the local hotels and was used for the famous Mauna Loa leis given to tourists, dignitaries, and even used for high school prom dates.

Tom turned his attention to other orchids and especially Vanilla planifolia when his vanda field was destroyed by a fungicide. His extensive research with vanilla gave him a place in history. The Hawaiian Vanilla Company in Paauilo continues his legacy.

A new friend, James Sleznick of San Juan Bautista, entered into my life while at our 2002 orchid show. He introduced himself to me and wanted to meet Tom and his vanilla plant. We all had a nice time talking about vanilla and I gave him a vanilla pin. After he had gone back to his home in California, he had sent me a letter with a Vanda Miss Joaquim pin. What a coincidence of having these people in my life centering upon this vanda. I was surprised and just overjoyed to have this happen in my life.

kdoc-orchid-show-carolPreparing for this orchid show, Vanda Miss Joaquim was very difficult to find. Starting from backyard growers, only small quantities of the plant remained in the gardens of those who knew how important this vanda was. Searching for the supply of orchids, I did not realize that where we always had visited on our around the island trips, there was a man who had also become a familiar face to all of our members: Yasuji Takasaki with Carmela Orchids. Yasuji was a cultivation supervisor for the sugar plantation in Hakalau in the 1940’s. With the higher prices for food caused by World War II, he looked around for some way to supplement his income. Not many people had the vandas that were just beginning as a commercial enterprise in Hilo. One farmer told him: “Why don’t you raise vegetables…flowers, you cannot eat.” A lifetime of orchid cultivation for the Takasaki family, by 1960, they had three acres covered with Vanda Miss Joaquim. The family still continues with orchids but the vanda field is cared for by his brother Haruo Takasaki and his family. Supporting his family with the production of this vanda through the years have contributed to the character of his children. Here was the place we found the the long lost Vanda Miss Joaquim for our display. With the help of Haruo’s daughter Caroline Doi and mom Mitsuko, our display is complete with many ways to use Vanda Miss Joaquim.

Without planning to meet these people in my life, their presence has made my life richer. I treasure the books, pins, stamps, badges, etc. as they remind me of the good times you can have with friends, sharing the wonderful world of orchids.

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