Making Hawaii A Greener Place


POSTED: Friday, October 17, 2008

Business is growing as steadily as the outcurling tendrils of a kupukupu fern for Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native plant nursery in Haiku.





Growing business

        A look at Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native Hawaiian nursery in Kapolei:


» Owners: Rick Barboza and Matt Schirman


» Place: 46-403 Haiku Road


» Open: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays by appointment


» Nonprofit arm: Papahana Kuaola


» Web site: www.plant





It's been three years since the nursery, owned by young entrepreneurs Rick Barboza and Matt Schirman, made a move from Waimanalo to Kaneohe, where they now have 63 acres of space nestled in the lush Haiku Valley.

That means they now have room for five greenhouses compared to the small one they had before on just a tenth of an acre, and plenty of room to expand.

The nursery now has room to grow more varieties of native plants - with a catalog of up to 140 - including some species that are endangered and others that are extinct in the wild.

Altogether, Hui Ku Maoli Ola now has more than 100,000 plants in stock, from ground cover to hala trees, and is a half-a-million-dollar business.

Hui Ku Maoli Ola also has a nonprofit offshoot, Papahana Kuaola, which was registered as a 501(c)(3) organization earlier this year.

Though the business has to look after its bottom line, it is driven by an underlying mission - which is to perpetuate and preserve Hawaii's natural history and culture through education.

With grant funding from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Kamehameha Schools, they now have staff to offer student tours of the nursery, as well as to give classroom lectures and lead field trips.

They also offer hands-on learning experiences for anyone who's interested, including hotel guests, on how to cultivate the taro terraces at the nursery.

Barboza, 33, and Schirman, 34, both grew up in Waimanalo with a penchant for the outdoors and an appreciation for native plants and wildlife.

Schirman says he never imagined that what started out as a few plants at his father's Waimanalo greenhouse 10 years ago would grow to the scale it has today.

Barboza, who also writes a Star-Bulletin column on native plants, said part of the mission is to reverse the loss of these species. Hawaii is now the endangered species capital of the world, he said - a sad title to hold.

Many people have the misconception that tropical plants like ginger, heleconia and pikake are native, he said, but they, in fact, are not.

“;What most people don't realize is that plants are not only the foundation of our culture,”; he said, “;they form the base of Hawaii's natural history as well. Everything from the native birds and snails to the native insects and fish depend on plants for their survival and existence.”;

The system is vulnerable when just one is removed from the equation, he said.

Part of the business's success stems from its focus on a specific niche for native Hawaiian plants, a trend which is steadily growing.

Hui Ku Maoli Ola also has a significant account - it supplies Home Depot stores in Hawaii, which is about one-third of the business.

At the No. 1-selling store in Iwilei, the plants occupy one small section, and come with labels that describe their native Hawaiian name, status (endangered, endemic, indigenous, rare, etc.), ideal growing conditions and care.

Customers can learn more by going to the company Web site: http://www.plantnativehawaii.com.

Other wholesale clients include landscape architects such as PBR Hawaii, contractors, homeowners, and anyone who wants to buy plants direct from the nursery, which is open Monday through Saturday.

The company's plants have been used for landscaping at major projects like Kukui 'Ula, a 1,010-acre luxury resort community on the south shores of Kauai.

It is, however, still a small business, with 10 full-time staff for the nursery, and now, eight full-time staff for the nonprofit arm.

Hui Ku Maoli Ola also has branched out to include landscape consulting, surveying, and habitat restoration. The company is working on several neighbor island projects for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.