How Hawaii became known as “Orchid Isle”
Tourists are often overwhelmed by the flower power when they first arrive in Hawaii.
Anthuriums, ginger, heliconias, and, of course, orchids are all in bloom. The plants are so lush
and floriferous that it’s just assumed that these lovely tropicals have been there forever.
Each of the seven Hawaiian Islands has a nickname and the Big Island of Hawaii is called the
“Orchid Isle.” Yet, there are only three orchid species that originated on the islands and they are
obscure. These rarities are found in remote areas and even well-versed growers have never heard
of them. One has to wonder how the name “Orchid Isle” came into being.
It all started around the turn of the century when Chinese laborers arrived to work on the sugar
plantations. Some plants arrived with them. Phaius tankerville, also known as the “Nun’s
Orchid,” started to appear as did an early orange and red cluster type Epidendrum hybrid. The
terrestrial Spathoglottis plicatta was found in grassy fields.
But it was the tall growing Arundina graminifolia, commonly called “The Bamboo Orchid”,
which caught my attention. There are few things as exciting to a grower as finding a wild orchid
species (even if it’s only been wild for a century or so).
While visiting the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park recently, I walked down a steep treacherous
path towards an old steaming lava crater and there they were – a dozen or more Bamboo orchids.
A whole patch of them! Some had fresh flowers while some had been pollinated and gone to
seed. The foliage was nearly as tall as I was. Each blossom varied in shades of lavender and
offered a sweet fragrance.
The hobby of orchid growing in Hawaii began in the late 1800’s with the descendents of the
Hawaiian monarchy and was soon followed by the English speaking wealthy merchants. The two
groups formed the first orchid societies in the 1930’s – both on the island of Oahu. It was the
1957 World Orchid Conference, however, which really put Hawaii on the orchid map.
At the time, Hawaii was only a United States territory but that didn’t stop the American Orchid
Society and other organizers from hosting the world’s largest orchid event in Honolulu (The
capital city on Oahu). Nearly 20,000 people attended the event which showcased not only the
orchids, but also the perfect growing conditions of the islands.
That same year, the University of Hawaii began a research program focusing on the culture and
production techniques of Dendrobiums. The “Hawaiian Lei” orchid has become the single most
important commercial flower in the state through cut flowers, leis, and potted plants.
Today, there are several hundred orchid farms and nearly 20 orchid societies throughout the
islands. Over 8 million people visit the state of Hawaii each year – many of whom are lured by
the nickname, “Orchid Isle.”