The Secret Lives of Plumeria by Kevin Whitton

Renowned plumeria grower Jim Little shepherds his blooms- but he won’t say how or where…

Plumerias are not native to Hawai’i. In fact, the first type plumeria, a yellow-white flowering tree was introduced in 1860 by William Hillebrand. Harold Lyon introduced the Singapore plumeria, an evergreen tree with fragrant white flowers in 1931. Soon after, a tree with red flowers was introduced from Mexico.

Hawaii’s warm, subtropical climate and the ease of propagation of all the many varieties helped the spread of Plumeria trees across the islands. Today, the many different colors of flowers can be seen in yards, high above houses, bordering city streets and dirt roads and strung into leis.

In 1973, photography instructor Jim Little stuck some plumeria branches into coffee cans from a tree in his back yard and sold them all a week later. The seed for Little’s new hobby had been planted, a hobby that would eventually grow into a Hawaiian plumeria empire.

Sewing the seed

 Once Little recognized that he could sell his small plumeria cuttings, taken from a large Singapore plumeria behind his home on the grounds of a Punahou where he taught photography, he became engrossed in collecting all different types of plumerias from around the island.

“All of a sudden I had this encompassing massive collection of plumerias with no place to put them,” recollects Little with a smile, his voice lilting with excitement. “Well, what do you do when you don’t have space? You come out to the North Shore and you start looking for some land”.

That’s exactly what he did, buying a two acre farm to start out. Soon it out-grew itself and became a 5-acre farm. That was soon too small and he moved on to a 10 acre farm, a farm that has mushroomed into a 20 acres thousand of trees.

“When you teach college, you work two or three days a week and you have the rest of the time to play. Playing was my plumeria thing,” says Little.

His hobby turned into a lucrative business with half the farm used for producing and picking lei flowers and the other half for cultivating cuttings to be sent to California, Texas, Florida, and a few international and local destinations as well.

Playing God

As it is with most good things in life, it’s about all who you know, and Little just happened to know a philanthropist by the name of Donald Angus, his first horticultural mentor and gentleman who would introduce Little to several people that would teach him the art of hybridization. One Kaua’i man in particular, Bill Moragne shared Little’s love for the plumeria and taught him the specific techniques and methods for hand pollination. In addition, he was receiving new plumeira stock from around the world from Dr. Richard Criley, a tropical plant specialist for the University of Hawai’i.

With many different varieties of plumerias in his possession,-different flower, color, shape, fragrance, and foliage-and the knowledge to cross these different varieties to create his own, Little became an expert on creating named cultivars. Named cultivar is a fancy word for what Little does: He creates a hybrid-a cross of two different plumerias for a desired result- and through cultivation, creates a new variety of plumeria to which a name is given. For example, he created the Doric, his prized flower full of dramatic heavy orange, named after his wife.

“Once you find something that genetically shows an interest in the seedling, then you keep building on it, you build off that same lot,” explains Little. “Each time you build, you have this new discovery. It is a process that requires lots of time and patience.”

The process of creating a hybrid and a named cultivar and having it be genetically viable generation after generation is tricky business and horticulturalists don’t give away their secrets readily. Little shares an anecdote of a friend who creates cymbidium orchid hybrids. When Little asked how it was done, “Get $10,000 and I’ll show you.”

Little continues, “You spend years learning how to develop a technique where you can get a deliberate cross to take, and you don’t give that information away. You don’t turn it over to someone. You can share how to do it, but there are so many fine points to make it happen that you can’t reveal that information. Any commercial grower has protection of their techniques.

Sorry folks, there are no nature walks through Little’s garden and no workshops on how to propagate plumerias-he didn’t want to be photographed for this article and the location of his farm is top secret too. The only place you’re likely to run into him is at Foodland. But take comfort that when your eye catches a beautiful plumeria flower, it’s soft fragrant pedals flittering in the breeze, most likely it’s of Little’s creation. In fact, many of the plumeria trees in Koko Crater Botanical Garden were donated by Little.

The easy life

Little created a plumeria empire by creating almost 100 named cultivars. Since his retirement in 2000, he has decided to work less, to play more, and get back to the hobby side of his plumeria hobby.

He has been strategically mentoring his two sons, specifically Clark, the Director of Wahiawa Botanical Gardens, to take over the family business and to keep the plumerias growing. In the meantime, Father Little is back to the pen and paper and is working on his second book about growing plumerias around the world. Based on his experience from exporting plumerias to non-tropical climate regions, he wants to show the reader that in places where plumerias are not mostly in bloom like Hawai’i, the trees can be grown for its beautiful foliage. The flowers become an added bonus.

When Little is not in the office writing, he is busy focusing on dwarf plumerias, generally small and compact trees that grow to a petite four of five feet.

(Honolulu Weekly, August 22, 2007, Vol 17, number 34)