Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, October 10, 1997

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Orchid culture at the family-operated Orchid Center
in Waianae is now highly automated.

Orchid culture
a family tradition

IT is often a fact of life. The grandparents start a small store, it succeeds and they turn it over to their children. The children enlarge and expand the business, their income increases and they send their children to expensive universities. When that generation comes home, they have been educated to be professionals and have no interest in the family store. And there's no one to run it, so it closes.

"You want your kids to do better than you did, it's just life," said Richard Takafuji. "But you hope they'll stay in the family business." Richard Takafuji and his wife Lea managed to maintain an enthusiastic third generation in their family business by giving their daughter Laina and their son Kevin real responsibility rather than token titles.

The Orchid Center in Waianae Valley now contains 125,000 square feet of more than one million potted orchids growing in shade houses. The company does a wholesale business in selling plants to Hawaii and mainland garden shops.

"It's a family organization," Richard Takafuji said. "I learned from my father (Thomas), and now I'm working with my kids. Kevin is responsible for all of the dendrobium cultivation, and Laina does the books. My father started raising fruit trees in 1940 in Aiea Heights, where Orchard Hills is today. That's where the name came from.

"He grew litchi and mango trees, did all of the grafting and air-layering himself. He sold them in old 5-gallon paint cans, no plastic pots. In the beginning it was kind of a hobby -- his business was Fuji Auto Repair, across from the Board of Water Supply on Beretania. I think there's an underground parking lot there now."

Thomas Takafuji grew his own vegetables at the orchard, and became interested in orchid cultivation. By the mid-1950s, he had 10,000 square feet devoted to his orchids. He died in 1963, and in 1968 Richard moved the family to 3 acres in Waianae. The children finished high school, then Kevin went to the University of Arizona to study architecture and Laina, to Boston College to major in marketing.

When the school of architecture closed at Arizona, Kevin switched to horticulture. After he graduated, his father turned the dendrobium business over to him. "We sell all of our dendrobiums locally, but 99 percent of our cattleyas go to the mainland or to foreign markets," Richard Takafuji said.

"Potted orchid sales have gone up 300 to 500 percent in the last 10 years. We are now competing with the cut flower industry in price. It's cheaper to buy a plant that will flower for two months than a bouquet that will be dead in a week. There's a lot of competition in the business, but it's good for everybody. It keeps us on our toes.

Where his father's orchard was a labor intensive operation, with most of the jobs done by hand, Richard has automated his nursery. It takes an orchid plant five years to grow from seed to the flowering stage, and the plant is repotted several times in the process. Where used clay pots once were hand scrubbed, Takafuji now sterilizes them in a 16 cubic foot kiln that burns off everything at 1,500 degrees.

The plants are watered by an automatic irrigation system.

Dendrobiums are the most popular potted orchid because the flowers last as long as two months. "The new compact cattleyas are doing well as potted plants because they have more vivid colors than the dendrobiums. A good pot plant of either variety should flower three times a year.

"The key to marketing is to keep the retail price under $10, so people will buy plants as gifts, not just to grow at home. And it has to be a plant that is attractive under fluorescent light -- that's what they have in most garden shops and retail nurseries. Colors change. Dark colors turn to black and red looks terrible. Pastels look best, and the most popular orchids are orchid color, a lavender," Takafuji said.

He is active in the Honolulu Orchid Society where he will be exhibiting and selling plants at their 58th annual Orchid Plant and Flower Show. The show opens Thursday at Blaisdell Exhibition Hall.

"It's free for the first time," Takafuji said. The usual admission fee was dropped to introduce newcomers to the hobby.

"Orchids are easy to grow. They need light, but not direct sunlight. They do better in semi-shade, just like human beings. Don't overwater. Twice a week is enough. They need air circulation -- don't stick them in a corner. They need fertilizer. The best for the home grower is Nutracote, and they'll be selling it at the orchid show.

The Takafujis propagate their orchids by tissue culture, a method that within a very short time produces a large number of plants with the same characteristics as the plant from which the tissue was taken. This process has brought down the price of potted orchids because it shortens the propagation time and multiplies the number of plants.

The new plants are started in flasks. When they are an inch or so in height, they are transferred to communal pots of 20 to 30 small plants. As they grow, two or three are transplanted together to 2-inch pots and are finally separated into their own 4-inch pots. The process takes five years from flask to flower.

Takafuji said that a side effect of this cloning method is that occasionally the cultured flowers have less color than the parent flower.

Takafuji will not only be exhibiting and selling orchids at the show, he will also be competing for an award with his vandas. Vandas have become his hobby, just as cattleyas were his father's. His Vanda Pat Delight is 6 inches in diameter and a lush deep purple. He won the Grand Champion trophy in 1995 and 1996, and hopes to win again next week. It would start a new family tradition.

Still bloomin'

What: A Symphony of Orchids, Honolulu Orchid Society's 58th annual Orchid, Plant and Flower Show
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 17 and 18, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 19
Where: Blaisdell Exhibition Hall
Admission: Free.

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

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