Hawaiian Orchids

By Jeanette Foster


Some have soft, fragile petals that delicately curl into scalloped edges. Some have shocking colors, purples so dark they look chocolate, yellows so bright they are practically neon and pinks so vivid that the sunset pales in comparison. Some have big fleshy petals, others pointy or spiny ones and some resemble creatures from outer space. Some have an intoxicating fragrance that will linger in your dreams.

They all are classified as Orchidaceae, the orchid family, one of the biggest families in the entire plant kingdom. Found worldwide (except Antarctica and arid deserts of Eurasia), these exotic plants have fascinated man since Theophrastus, the father of botany (ca. 371 - 287 BC), who first described the flowers, which he called Orchis, in his botanical work, Enquiry into Plants.

There are so many orchids in the world, that scientists, botanists and orchid hunters are still discovering new ones in exotic tropical regions. No one really knows how many orchids there are: some say there are 15,000 different species and others argue no, there are 25,000 different species, some claim 400 different genera, which is disputed by another faction who puts the number closer to 800.

Although people think of orchids as being native to the Hawaii, actually only four species are endemic to the islands and all of them are so inconspicuous that they are considered uninteresting in the world of commercial ornament orchids.

“Everyone thinks of cattleyas as orchids,” said “Mr. Orchid” of the Big Island, Miroyasu Akatsuka, of Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, referring to the large petal flower, frequently used in corsages. “Lots of people think cattleyas originally came from Hawaii.”

Cattleyas may not have originally come from Hawaii, but Akatsuka has been a pioneer in breeding cattleyas in the islands. Akatsuka came to the Big Island nearly 30 years ago, from Japan where he worked in an orchid nursery. His brother had just opened an orchid nursery here and wanted his help.

At the time, the nursery sold to wholesalers only, and the wholesalers wanted cattleyas. The problem was there weren’t any cattleyas around.

“Only hobbyist were growing cattleyas, which was not enough for the wholesale industry,” Akatsuka explained from his newly expanded retail store. “The few that we could get from Oahu were always damaged in transportation.”

So Akatsuka decided to grow his own cattleyas. Never mind that they took 3-5 years to bloom and that at 2,600 feet above sea level, his nursery wasn’t considered ideal conditions for raising orchids. Not to mention that it got cold at night in Volcano, 50 degrees, a temperature that orchids don’t especially like.

None of that phased Akatsuka. In Japan, he grew orchids in hot houses, so he knew that if he just covered the green house he might be able to grow the delicate cattleyas.

The result, some 20 plus years later, is Akatsuka’s cattleyas (in fact, all his orchids) are hardier, bigger and stronger than other orchids, and are in great demand.

My orchids take longer to grow,” he admitted, “but they are stronger.”


In 1991, Akatsuka took over the family business and today, the majority of the sales are in retail and a smaller percent in wholesale. His biggest wholesale sales are his hybrids. Akatsuka is to hybrid orchids as Mercedes-Benz is to cars: the best you can buy.

Every year (for decades now), Akatsuka creates 50 to 70 hybrids. He won’t know for at least three to six years if his hybrids will even bloom, and if they do, if they will produce the flower he is looking for.

“It’s a long process,” he admits. “And it’s a lot of money to invest. Plus a lot of them won’t even bloom.”

But the twinkle in his eye and the smile on his face, show that he loves his hybrids like a father loves his children. Akatsuka’s hybrids are so well known (and respected) in the orchid world, that wholesalers happily buy his plants before they bloom, knowing an Akatsuka orchid is a treasure.

You don’t have to be an orchid expert to visit his nursery, located between the 22 and the 23 mile marker on Highway 11, just outside Volcano. Open everyday, from 8:30 am - 5 pm (toll free, 888-967-6669 or 808-967-8234), the 15,000 square foot retail store and nursery is like wandering through an enchanted garden of incredible orchids.

“Some orchids only bloom once a year, some just seasonal,” he explained. “So I have to have all kinds of orchids in the retail store in bloom all the time. No blossoms, no sale.”

Not only does Akatsuka have some 100,000 blooming orchids in his nursery, but he also has his “mother plants” on display. These mammoth orchids are where he gets the stock for his hybrids.

Akatsuka’s is certified to either ship plants to the mainland or pack plants for visitors to hand carry back themselves.

“All our plants grow on tables,” he explained. “We have been certified by the Department of Agriculture to pack and ship.”

One of Akatsuka’s favorite parts of growing orchids is watching the faces of visitors who come into his nursery and see the incredible array of orchids on display.

“I tell people, just come and see the nice orchid plants, you don’t have to buy,” he said. “Just seeing that beauty will make you happy.