Lei of the land


POSTED: Friday, March 13, 2009

Brian ChoY remembers the fragrant flowers that grew in the garden of his childhood home, especially the plumeria and pakalana. “;I have always loved flowers and gardening,”; he said. “;Lei making and a lei garden was destined to become my lifelong passion.”;

Choy didn't always have the luxury of a lei garden, though. Often, he undertook a floral scavenger hunt through the yards of friends and neighbors or on hikes on Oahu and the neighbor islands. Nowadays he tries to keep everything on hand on his lanai or in the back yard of his brother's home, where they grew up.

He got started with some lei plants in redwood planters along the rock wall that surrounded the yard. “;The garden has evolved significantly over the decades,”; Choy said.

Choy, a master lei maker who was the perennial winner of the city's May Day contests until he retired last year, is sharing his knowledge at next weekend's “;Celebration of Hawaiian Lei Making,”; including a workshop on lei gardens.

Today his garden is filled with cup and saucer plants, bougainvillea, bozu, lilliput zinnia, feathery cockscomb and dusty miller. A rainbow of colors brightens the green foliage — pink bleeding hearts; red and yellow ohia lehua; white, lavender and purple orchids; ti leaves in shades of red, yellow and black. The garden consists of hundreds of plants and includes three to four dozen annuals.

“;Ferns are the hardest to grow,”; he said. “;All of my plants have been struggling to grow with the rain, wind and so little sunny days.”;

Normally, maintaining the garden is relatively easy, Choy explained. With a sprinkler system, it needs tending just once or twice a week.

But in the beginning, things were not so simple. “;Several weeks of killing the grass, tilling the soil, constructing the beds, installing the sprinkler system and adding bags of potting soil and cinder took months of hard labor.”;

Choy stared in the '70s with a dozen ohia plants he brought back from the Big Island after attending the Merrie Monarch Festival. “;Only one tree is still surviving. Since then I have planted a dozen more ohia in the garden. I also planted the palapalai fern and later discovered that it is not a native species — since I saw it growing at Knott's Berry Farm — but is very hardy and grows well in our hot Kaimuki garden,”; he said.

“;The ohia trees and palapalai are significant plants in the Hawaiian culture. A lei of red ohia lehua is sacred to both Hawaiian goddesses, Pele and Hi'iaka. The palapalai fern, or palai fern, is one of the important plants placed on the altar dedicated to Laka, goddess of hula. Palai is one of the favorite ferns of lei makers.”;

Although lei plants can be found in garden shops and nurseries, few lei flowers are available commercially, Choy said. “;It's economically sensible to grow your own lei flowers and fern. If you bought all of your lei material, you may as well buy the lei.”;

He added, “;Being able to walk into your garden and pick your flowers and fern and make a lei is simply a joy and a gift from God. ...

“;Songs and chants have been composed to describe our love for a flower or lei. How could we exist without the beauty and joy of flowers or lei in our lives?”;


Celebration of Hawaiian Lei Making

» Workshops: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 20 to 22. Panel discussion on “;Planning to Enter the May Day Lei Contest”; is at 1 p.m. March 20 and “;Planting and Maintaining a Lei Garden”; at 1 p.m. March 22.
» Place: Academy Art Center at Linekona
» Admission: Free
» Call: TEMARI, Center for Asian & Pacific Arts, 536-4566