Sunday, May 1, 2005

A lei maker worked in a corner shop in Chinatown last week. With Mother's Day and graduations just around the corner, Hawaii's lei season is just getting started.

Lei makers see higher
prices for busy season

Mother's Day and grads bring
lei sales to seasonal high

The three women at Lita's Leis and Flower Shoppe sat around a small table covered with loose flowers in hues of white, light orange and pale green, rhythmically stringing the vibrant blossoms onto cotton threads.

"We're doing more unusual leis today because it's slow," Nita Galari says as she skewers delicate orange ohia alii flowers with a long wire needle.

But as Mother's Day and graduation season approach, the women will have less time to work on the more intricate designs, she said.

The busiest time of year for lei makers is just getting started. In the coming weeks, leis by the thousands will be placed around the necks of honorees, accompanied by a kiss and embrace.

Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and funerals, as well as airport greetings and tour companies create a steady year-round demand but as May approaches, lei makers speed up production and charge higher prices.

"Vendors know May, June and July are the busiest months, so they kick up the price," said Khamphieng Srisongkhan of Jenny's Lei and Flower in Chinatown. Flower vendors sent a letter to lei sellers in late April notifying them of the impending rise in the price of blossoms.

Ayako Yamada, owner of A & K Nursery in Waimanalo, grows most of Oahu's fragrant tuberose crop. She said increased demand is not the main reason she's raising prices this year by about a half cent a blossom.

Rainy weather in November and December, followed by strong winds in January ruined about 12 acres of Yamada's tuberose, or about 80,000 flowers. Rising fuel costs add to her financial stress.

Jenny's Lei and Flower shop in Chinatown offers a variety of leis, including orchids, mock orange, pikaki and ohia alii.

"This time it's a crunch. I cannot even treat my workers a few hundred dollars extra for working so hard," Yamada said.

Still, the cost of most leis won't climb dramatically. The pikake lei, with its heady, addictive fragrance, will prove the exception. The price of the white pikake leis, which sold for about $25 near the end of April, will just about double in May, said Galari and other lei sellers in Honolulu. The price of a Christina, a favorite lei made of 500 tightly packed orchid lips, will rise from about $22 to $25 at Lita's.

Prices for the least expensive leis, such as the common $3.50 orchid or carnation leis, will likely rise by about 50 cents to $1 at the Chinatown shops.

Sellers said price increases don't deter customers who want to show affection for mom or a giddy graduate.

"Even if the price goes up, they will still come and get it," Srisongkhan said.

About 96 million flowers grown in Hawaii in 2003 were strung into leis, according to the latest statistics from the state Department of Agriculture. Waxy, white tuberoses accounted for more than $1.48 million, or 40 percent, of sales recorded by the state in 2003.

Nurseries and hothouses throughout the islands grow most of the state's lei flowers, including carnation, orchid, pikake and plumeria.

Locals tend to purchase the Christina or fragrant flowers such as pikake, ginger and puakenikeni, lei sellers said.

Tour companies and hotels often drape visitors with the less expensive plumeria or orchid leis, whose purple and white flowers are mostly imported from Thailand.

Demand for leis in California, Oregon and Washington has risen dramatically in the past two or three years, especially during graduation season, according to Bill Wise of Waihii Farms on Oahu.

"There's a huge demand from people on the mainland, from graduates at UCLA and USC to people who want to bring leis to dinner parties," Wise said. The sight of college graduates covered in leis up to their eyeballs, customary after graduation ceremonies in Hawaii, is now common on many West Coast campuses, he said.

Orchids and pre-made leis from Thailand are also more widespread, lei sellers and flower growers said.

Dora Martinez has sold leis for decades at her lei stand at Honolulu Airport. She can spear plumeria flowers with flawless precision, but imports the complicated orchid leis, such as the Christina.

"They didn't used to have all these fancy leis," said Martinez, 83, gesturing to the intricate orchid creations from Thailand.

The state doesn't track the number of flowers entering Hawaii's lei market from other countries or the mainland, said Arthur Osaki, a statistician for the agriculture department.

Practiced lei makers spend about a half-hour on the average lei, and just a few minutes on basic plumeria or orchid leis. They devote about an hour to the fancier styles, which can include a mix of flowers, nuts and seeds, and retail for about $15 to $25.

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