By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Laura Kim threads her tiare lei on strips of sheeting
because the flower opening is too wide for string.
Lei makers say it's not a Hawaiian garden if there isn't a plumeria tree. The staple blossom for lei making, the plumeria is in flower most of the year and a professional can string a lei in 5 minutes. Having a plumeria tree in your garden is like having sliced mangoes in your freezer -- you can come up with something distinctly Hawaiian in a matter of minutes. But even the greatest fan of the plumeria lei will admit that it isn't very special, that it isn't for a significant occasion like an anniversary or a graduation.
Among the treasured lei, along with puakenikeni, pikake, ilima and maile, there is a new fragrant lei made from the buds of the tiare, the Tahitian gardenia. Laura Kim, a serious gardener and longtime lei maker, learned the technique from the daughter of her roommate of more than 50 years ago at Mid-Pacific Institute.
"My roommate's granddaughter was going to a dance, and needed a lei in a hurry, so her mother collected dozens of tiare buds (I think partly from a nearby park) and she strung them into a lei. The secret of the lei is that it isn't strung on thread or string, but on a half-inch strip of old sheeting," Kim said.
By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Kim collects the buds and stores them, tightly wrapped
in plastic, until she has enough for a lei.
She trims the stems to a half-inch, below, so
that the finished lei, bottom, is full.
"Tiare, like puakenikeni and stephanotis, has a quarter-inch opening through the center of the flower, and when you use string on these flowers, they slip around or bunch up. Sheeting holds them firmly in place, and it holds the moisture in the flowers to keep them alive longer."
Kim uses one strip per lei, about a half-inch wide and 55 inches long, torn from an old sheet. "Be sure to remove the frayed threads at the side of the strip or they'll show in the lei," she advised. One end of the strip is secured over the hook of the lei needle, which is pushed through the flower center.
"It takes about 80 to 100 flowers to make a really nice lei. I cut the stems to a half-inch, but if you leave them longer you need fewer flowers. The lei won't be as full, though. You don't need to have all the flowers at once. I gather them early in the afternoon, when the buds have just slightly opened because you can't string them when they're tightly closed.
"If I haven't enough flowers, or the time to string them, I pack them tightly, really pressed together, in plastic wrap, 25 to a package. Then I put each package in the refrigerator. The flowers will hold for several days this way ... It takes me about a half-hour to string a tiare lei, and for me it is good therapy."
If she doesn't plan to use or give away the lei immediately, she folds it in half , wraps it tightly in plastic kitchen wrap and refrigerates it. She isn't sure why the flowers stay fresher longer when wrapped tightly, although it may have something to do with protecting them from humidity. "White flowers, like pikake and ginger, are usually very fragile, but a tiare lei will last for several days if you take care of it. My granddaughter graduated last Friday from Kaiser, and she was piled with leis. Afterward, she pulled out the tiare lei and used it Saturday night in the centerpiece for her graduation party. It was still looking good the following morning."
When not being worn or used in an arrangement, the lei should be stored in an air-tight plastic bag in the refrigerator. Don't get the flowers wet and don't pack them in damp paper towels, keep them dry and chilled, she said.
A dedicated gardener, Kim has air-layered her original tiare bush, and now has several more as a constant supply of buds. "It sounds difficult, but all you need is a kit from a garden shop and then follow the directions." She has also air-layered her puakenikeni tree and given rooted slips to her daughter-in-law, another serious gardener.
"You make a puakenikeni lei the same way as the tiare lei, on sheeting strips. But after you have picked the flowers, you wrap them in a damp kitchen towel and leave them on the counter. If you refrigerate the lei before you wear it, the flowers bruise. Puakenikeni blossoms are white when they are picked and they slowly turn yellow and finally a dark orange."
Once you have worn the lei, the best way to keep it is to put it into a plastic bag that you use for produce at the market, and make sure there is air in it before you tie the ends. Then float the bag on cold water on the counter. Don't put it in the refrigerator, she advised.
Dendrobium, plumeria, stephanotis and pakalana lei that are beginning to wilt can often be refreshed by submerging them in cold water for 10 minutes. Let them dry out before wearing them so that you don't spot your clothes.
Lei have celebrated the most important events in Kim's life, from her childhood days on Maui, her wedding at St. Andrew's Cathedral, births of her three sons and their children, their birthdays and graduations. And every Wednesday and Sunday since his death a few years ago, Kim makes a special short lei that she leaves at the niche at her church where her husband's ashes are kept. Lei, Kim knows, aren't always just for the happy times, they are for memories.
Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!
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