Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, July 9, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
The Nii Magic (top) and Nii Pink are just two of the hundreds
of hybrids created by Charles Nii (left) in the past three decades.

Nii’s passion in full bloom

ONCE upon a time, a long time ago before Waialae-Kahala became a neighborhood of stone or metal fences, people grew hibiscus hedges along the boundaries of their property. Hibiscus is the everyday flower --not only does it provide fresh flowers daily, but it is a comfortable kind of plant, nothing fussy. The houses were smaller then, the gardens were bigger and brighter, and Charles Nii remembers it well.

Founder and owner of Charles Nii Nursery at the back of Hawaii Kai, Nii is one of the state's most successful hybridizers of hibiscus. Well past retirement age, Nii has turned the running of the nursery over to his son Glenn, but he's out there every day working with plants and knowledgeably answering questions from the commercial landscapers and backyard gardeners who are his best customers.

"I started the nursery 45 years ago. But before that, during the war, the family had a chicken farm on Kalanianaole Highway where the soccer field (below Waialae Iki) is now. When we had spare time, my brothers and I used to pot plants for our own gardens. Pretty soon we found that we had overdone it. We had more plants than we could use.

"So we planted our extra hibiscus along the roadside in front of the farm. Before we knew it, we had a tourist attraction: visitors were stopping and taking pictures of the plants. Since we already had a sales outlet at the chicken farm, we sold our surplus plants there, too."

Then in 1955, Waialae Iki was developed and the Nii family's lease was cancelled. So they moved the farm to what is now Mariner's Cove in Hawaii Kai. When Henry Kaiser decided to develop that property in 1971, they moved to their present location on 6 acres at the back of the valley.

"That's when I began hybridizing hibiscus," said Nii. "In those days, there was more interest in hibiscus. The Hawaiian Hibiscus Society was a big club, and now it doesn't even exist. We had an annual flower show at McCoy Pavilion with prizes for the best hybrids." Charles Nii won his share. New hybrid varieties are produced by hand pollinating seeds from one variety onto the stamen of the receiving blossom shortly after it has opened. Established hybrids are then grafted onto common hibiscus rootstock.

Hybridizing, he said, is pretty much a shot in the dark. If you get five keepers out of 100 seedlings, you are doing very well. "Sometimes you only get one," he said. "The first thing you have to have is a plant that is better than its parent plants. You look for firm flowers, good color, a strong plant with lots of flowers." He now has an estimated 350 varieties of hibiscus at the nursery, and he is still working, with no success so far, on hybridizing a scented hibiscus.

Nii has given his best flowers the family name. His prize hybrids are the Nii Yellow and the Nii Red, which are favorites for hedges. Both are five-petaled single flowers in solid yellow or red. A newer favorite is the bright red Marilyn Goss, "such a good grower and a good bloomer that we can't keep up with the orders," he said.

The double hibiscus, with compact, multi-petalled flowers, are hybrids. There is a growing market, he said, for the darker colored flowers, like the bronze Topaz Glory or the chocolate French Toast.

When planting a hibiscus hedge, Nii suggests leaving a little space between the plants, giving each its separate identity, rather than bunching them into a solid hedge. "Start by digging a big hole, three or four times the size of the plant's container. Partially fill it with a mix of soil and compost before adding the plant. It's important to stake the young plant so it won't blow over," Nii said.

Because many select seedlings are grafted onto the common red hibiscus stock, you may find after a few months that a shoot is growing below the graft. Cut it off and let the hybrid take over. For the first two months, the plant should be watered daily. After that, two or three good waterings a week should keep it healthy.

"Hibiscus likes full sun," he added. "It will grow just fine in partial shade, but you won't get as many flowers. A while ago we had a real problem with bud drop -- The immature buds would fall off the plant, but Glenn discovered that spraying with Orthene controlled it. We use Sevin on insect pests and Volck oil on scale."

Nii wants hibiscus growers to know that you can use them for a single evening as a cut flower. "Cut the closed blossoms early in the morning and put them in the refrigerator. They don't need water. Then at 5 p.m., bring them out and they will open and last all evening."

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

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