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West Siders find fulfilling hobby in growing orchids

By Staff | Feb 13, 2014

WEST MAUI – Orchids grow all over the planet – on every continent and in every climate – and on Maui, it’s no different. Enclaves of the exotic plant can be found growing in the distinctly diverse on-island micro-climates, from the wet windward side, the fertile western slopes of Haleakala to the dry leeward shores of Lahaina.

Cultivators come from all walks of life: old and young, rich and poor, commercial and amateur; but one resource they all share in common is the Maui Orchid Society (MOS).

Founded in 1941, “the MOS is dedicated to education, preservation and cultivation of orchids.”

Membership is affordable – for singles, $15 annually, and for two persons at the same address, $25. Those 80 and over enjoy member perks for free.

The group of orchid enthusiasts meets monthly on the third Tuesday, mostly at the Wailuku Community Center.

Bert K. Akitake, M.D., is the non-profit’s president. A resident of Waiehu Heights in Wailuku, Akitake was a pediatrician at Maui Medical Group, tending West Side patients from the late 1970s. He retired three years ago, and it didn’t take long for his passion for the largest family of flowering plants to reemerge. Now, his love of orchidaceae is complete.

“My grandfather grew orchids, and it has interested me ever since,” Akitake told the Lahaina News.

He is avid MOS advocate. He joined the society four years ago and is serving his third year as president.

“The benefits of the Orchid Society are that members are able to meet and get information on the growing and care of orchids. Also, you are able to get plants that are not readily available to the general public. Most important, you are able to meet with growers who are on-island and are available to answer questions that a member may have,” he commented.

Akitake prescribed joining the group of amateur and professional planters as a remedy to orchid-phobia.

“I would encourage any person who is slightly interested in growing orchids and thinks they have a ‘black to brown’ thumb to come and learn that growing orchids is not difficult, and that NO ONE has a black thumb,” he advised.

Sara Riley agrees. A graduate of Lahainaluna High School, Class of 1996, she is one of the society’s younger members and hosts her cache of plants at her home in Olowalu.

“Membership is $15 for a whole year, 12 meetings. That is the price of one orchid,” she observed.

“The knowledge and friendship you gain from being a member is worth much more than that. They are mysterious and beautiful. There are so many types of orchids and species. Orchids are inspiring,” she said.

Blossom Kawahara is one of the society’s newer members. She joined last year.

Her orchid grotto is woven into the micro-climate of her home in Wahikuli.

“Every time I got an orchid, after they bloomed, I thought they died. So one day I threw them in my hot house; and, lo and behold, they bloomed again beautifully without effort from me,” she said.

“What do I love about orchids? That they don’t need dirt to thrive. They love air and mild wind, and so do I.”

Blossom noted a number of orchid society benefits: “… the ability to bid on and purchase rare orchids… and visitations to the orchid farms and get discounted plants.”

Kahana resident Barbara Newton shares the passion of “the unique beauty of each orchid.” She is the “caretaker” of 97 plants.

Newton’s biggest lesson over the years has been patience.

“I have a beautiful orchid that is a keiki from another and has just bloomed for the first time in ten years. I guess the plant found its ‘happy place.’ ”

Newton recognized the professional growers, active in the society’s rolls: “They are so generous in sharing their expertise with us non-professionals at each meeting,” she said.

Jocelyn (Aotaki) Phillip (LHS Class of ’73) has been immersed in the orchid culture since birth.

“On the day that I was born, my dad brought in this plant, this cattleya, for my mom. They named me after the flower. So something about orchids I have always felt connected,” she recalled.

Jocelyn was surrounded by thousands of orchids in her family home located in the winding streets above the old Pioneer Mill.

She described the plant-to-person bond.

Her father, now passed, was Larry Aotaki.

“My dad started orchids when he was a teenager He was one of the bigger orchid growers in Lahaina in his day,” she said.

His quest for knowledge in his teenage years was determined. “He had to walk like miles to this place to learn about orchids from another grower,” Jocelyn explained.

“He did not sell them commercially,” Jocelyn continued. “He displayed orchids in some hotels – the Royal Lahaina and Kaanapali Beach.”

Mr. Aotaki worked for the mill as an irrigation supervisor; “orchid growing was a side-love of his.”

She has fond memories: “I remember I would have to go with him and help him change out the orchids each week.”

Her father was an active member of the American Orchid Society, Lahaina Orchid Society (when they had one) and the Maui Orchid Society.

“He was a judge,” she added.

Carrying on the family tradition, Jocelyn is a member of the MOS along with her mother, Asaye, now eligible for free membership.

Jocelyn enjoys attending the monthly gatherings, “the intermingling with the other orchid growers and grasping knowledge from them – there is a lot of sharing within the orchid community.”

President Akitake welcomes all new members.

“Our meetings are open to the general public, the third Tuesday of each month at the Wailuku Community Center. We encourage everyone with a passion for orchids to join the society and enrich your orchid experience and our ohana.”

Visit mauiorchidsociety.org. The next meeting is on Feb. 17.