Trouble in Paradise: Hawaiian Farms Buried in Lava

“The recent lava flows in Hawaii occurred on the east side of the island where most of the tropical plant growers are located. Eight orchid nurseries were lost.” Courtesy of the United States Geological Survey

The mere mention of Hawaii conjures up picturesque images of dancing Hula skirts, swaying palm trees, and catching the perfect wave. That pleasant association is being re-examined after a major volcanic eruption forever changed the landscape of the Big Island. Missing from the dramatic news coverage are the somber stories of commercial orchid nurseries who were painstaking lost in the lava.

Long time residents of Hawaii pride themselves on their resilience to the near constant threat of Kileaua, an active volcano that has been continuously spewing since 1983. Over the years, there have been a number of notable flows including one in 1989 that wiped out the town of Kalapana. Nonetheless, life has been relatively stable for the locals who have learned to embrace the danger and welcome the sight-seeing tourists who arrive every day.    

Many of the tropical plant nurseries in Hawaii were located on the east side of the island including a concentration of orchid farms in Kopoho – a rural area known for its ideal climate that is situated over 20 miles from Kileaua. Nobody there was ever concerned about lava.

On June 1, fissures opened up several miles from Kopoho. Growers still weren’t too worried. “We thought it would flow in the other direction” said Mike Hughes, owner of Hawaiian Tropicals Direct, a sprawling 10 acre orchid farm which specialized in Dendrobiums and Oncidiums. “The whole thing came pretty fast. First, we lost power then we lost cell phone service.”

A mandatory evacuation order prevented growers from re-entering the area to retrieve anything more than paperwork and keepsakes. Even still, Hughes thought the lava would stop before it got to his farm and that he “would be cut off [from the main highway] for a while until an access road was built.” Two days later, a sixty foot high wall of molten lava, a mile and a half wide, rolled over Kopoho en route to the sea.

Breaktaking footage of the eruption captivated television audiences around the world. All told, there were 40 acres of orchid production as well as countless foliage and fruit farms engulfed. The orchid nurseries that were lost included Asia Pacific Flowers, Inc, Moani Farms, Orchid Plantation Inc, Orchid Paradise, LLC, Hawaiian Acres of Orchids, Kaumana Flowers, and Far East Orchids.

Some nearby growers also experienced losses from toxic vapors, earthquakes, and fires associated with the eruption. Officials are still tallying up the pot plant losses but “it’s estimated that around 50% of Hawaii’s cut flower orchid production is gone” says Jon Tanouye, President of Orchid Growers of Hawaii. 

Some growers have expressed an interest in rebuilding their operations especially if there is some government disaster relief. “The county is looking into making [nursery] space available down the coast, maybe 10 miles from Kopoho” said Tanouye. “Due to the rural areas here, we have to make sure there is water and electricity available.”

But other growers are not so excited. Some were close to retirement and don’t have the energy to rebuild. Others are ‘done’ with Hawaii and are moving back to the mainland. Hughes, who has a second smaller location near the capital city of Hilo, would like to rebuild.

For the next three years or so, florists and do-it-yourself flower arrangers on the mainland are likely to experience shortages in cut Dendrobium, Oncidium, and Vanda sprays. In addition, hobbyists may find reduced offerings of blooming plants at shows and garden centers around the country.  

Tanouye encourages hobbyists to continue to “Buy Hawaiian” and support the island and its growers. Consider purchasing a mail order orchid from a Hawaiian grower (complete list on or, better yet, plan a trip to the Big Island. There is still a thriving orchid industry in Hawaii for hobbyists worldwide to enjoy.

“Dendrobiums are popular with hobbyists because they are long lasting and, often, brightly colored. The plants in this photograph were shipped just before lava wiped out the nursery.” Photo Credit – Arthur Chadwick

“Hawaii is one of the largest producers of orchid plants and flowers in the United States. Much of that was lost in June when a lava flow sixty feet high rolled over many of the growers.” Photo Credit – Arthur Chadwick


Wednesday, August 1, 2018 - 15:30