Plumeria grower shares the wealth
The Maui resident spreads joy by giving away flower leis
LAHAINA » Richard K. Toba gives away scores of plumeria leis each week to friends and visitors.
"People ask me how come I don't sell it. It's not my style. I say I got started with people giving me the cuttings. One thing about money: The more you have, the more you want," Toba said standing among more than 100 plumeria trees he planted.
Toba, 70, who was recently selected as an Outstanding Older American for Maui County, lives with his wife, Evelyn, in a single-story house on an acre of land near the site of the former Pioneer Sugar Mill.
The back area of the house lot is where he tends to his hobby, growing plumerias from seedlings to trees, watching them develop their distinct characteristics and fragrances.
Toba donates the leis to the Lahaina-Honolua Senior Citizens Club, a group that donates a couple of scholarships annually to students at Lahainaluna High School.
He also gives the leis to the Na Kupuna Serenaders, a group of senior citizens who sing Hawaiian music and perform hula for free on days when the cruise ships arrive at Lahaina Harbor.
Leis are also given for free to a number of visitors arriving on the ships.
"We give whatever he makes," said Evelyn, a member of the Na Kupuna group.
"A lot of them like plumeria leis."
Toba, who grew up on a sugar plantation camp in Central Maui, said he enjoys the sense of community and the neighborly tradition that lei-giving fosters.
Sometimes, friends who have received leis will bring over food, such as sushi, or fruits and vegetables from their garden.
He has also been featured in a table-top pictorial book by Florida plumeria grower Alan Bunch, who received more than 1,000 cuttings for free from Toba.
Toba said he has learned a lot about the plumeria since he began tending them about seven years ago.
Raising them in sunny Lahaina isn't easy.
He wakes up on most days between 3 and 4 a.m. to pick the flowers for several hours.
He has installed plastic pipes to irrigate the trees and fertilizes them frequently.
Out of roughly every 20 seedlings planted, only one usually has flowers suitable for lei making, he said.
Planting them by seed as he does assures that each will have its individual characteristic.
Some are shaped like stars, and others, balloon-shaped petals.
Toba points out one that has a lemon smell and another that has the fragrance of rain and ginger.
He has given names to his favorite trees.
He said one of them is named "Caitlin Oto," after the late granddaughter of Ralph and Marge Oto.
Toba said Caitlin died about three years ago when a rock rolled down a hill and killed her in her home on the mainland.
Several are named after his six grandchildren, Kristy, Samantha, Rachel, Ryan, Cameron and Kelli.
Toba said when he started giving away leis in 1999, he planned to provide them for some dancers and singers in the senior citizen clubs, but the demand for them increased.
Now, he makes about 50 leis a week.
"It just kept on growing," he said.