Human Flower Project

Hawaiian Anthuriums: Get Well Soon

Hawaii’s major cut-flower—a weirdo—staggers back into full production after a 10+ year battle with blight.

imageAnthurium andreanum

Photo: Dr. Paul M. Resslar

What looks like a plastic clown mask and appears, sometimes, in funeral sprays?

Anthurium. More than 600 varieties of this peculiar “flower” (the showy part of this plant is actually the spathe) grow in the higher elevations of South and Central America. With apologies for our stodginess, we find it a garish thing, not really flowerlike at all. The texture, especially of “blistered” varieties, seems halfway between Mylar and rubber. Who wants blisters, on their fingers or their flowers?

As we recoil, we also champion floral diversity and—as if opinions mattered—a panoply of taste. So we were dismayed to learn that the odd anthurium has suffered a huge setback in Hawaii due to disease. Anthuriums were introduced here in the 1890s, and grown by small farmers, especially on the Big Island, for sale to local flower shops through the 1940s. Starting in the ‘50s, more intensive commercial production began and thirty years later, anthuriums had become Hawaii’s top-selling export flower. 

imageAnthurium blight attacks a spathe

Photo: T. Vowell

This excellent article, by several scientists who’ve been working to eradicate the blight, gives a history of the plant’s advances and vicissitudes:

“The industry reached its peak in 1980, supplying local, national, and international markets with up to 232,000 dozen flowers per month. Although yield was at 2.5 million dozen flowers in 1980, supply was insufficient to meet demand.” By 1990 anthurium production had dropped by half.

A bacteria—Xanthomonas axonopodis pv. dieffenbachiae—was first detected in these plants in Kauai in 1971. By the late ‘80s, more than 200 farms in and near Hilo on the Big Island had lost everything.

Anne Alvarez and others from the University of Hawaii have been taking a manifold approach to the disease. Early on, horticulturists thought that removing infested or sick plants and disinfecting cutting tools would eradicate the problem. It didn’t. Now, plant specialists advocate going to much greater lengths—even recommending a ” triple indexing protocol” to insure that budding plantlets are disease free. Other approaches include drip irrigation, chemical sprays, biological controls, and a shift to new, more resistant cultivars (crossing the less spectacular A. antioquense with A. andraeanum, “the clown”).

imageThe Hilo Farmers Market

Photo: Ma’ona

For more on Hawaiian anthuriums, this blog offers a lovely tour of the Hilo Farmers Market, with flowers in profusion. (According to this interesting article by Ron Staton, the Hilo Farmers Market was the first in the nation to accept food stamps—just for food, not for flowers.)

Here you may visit an anthurium farm or, should you be in a wearier, more introspective mood, consider an affirmation/meditation that involves focusing on a wild anthurium in bloom and this mantra: “I transform my energy bodies for the New Reality.”

Come to think of it, anthurium does make a rather nice emblem for “the New Reality.”


Anthurium Quilt, by Phyllis Hirata, designed by John Serrao

Image: Hawaiian Quilting

We got there via another route: this amazing work by Hawaiian master quilter Phyllis Hirata. Applique presents a completely new outlook on “blisters.” Hirata’s needle following Serrao’s design has discovered a pulse we never felt before from this tropical oddity.

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