Profit potential in petals; Hawaii plans flower export drive

Everybody knows what Hawaii uses flowers for -- leis, right?

Partly right. Increasingly, Hawaii is finding another use for flowers -- as an export commodity.

As part of Hawaii's general plan to broaden its economic base, which is heavily dependent on tourism, and to diversify its sugar-dominated agriculture industry, the state has helped develop three commercial flowers for export: anthuriums, dendrobium orchids, and proteas -- which look as exotic as they sound.

Although wholesale prices for these flowers amounted to a modest $7.5 million in 1980, that represents a tripling over 1976 sales of $2.5 million. State officials say that market, combined with other nursery products, has a potential for generating as much as $100-$300 million annually.

''Hawaii is nature's greenhouse,'' says Tom Freeman, who has helped oversee state support for the fledgling industry through the Department of Planning and Economic Development. ''We have quite an advantage in that respect.''

''Lei flowers totaled $3.5 million in 1980,'' he says. ''That's great, but that's no export crop. . . . We're looking for what we can do better than anyone else can.''

During the current fiscal year, the state will spend $85,000 to help promote the flower crops. Normally, such money goes to promotional pamphlets distributed to mainland florists; to helping cover the costs of attending flower shows outside the state; and to funding industry associations, which are required to provide matching dollars to state aid after three years in operation.

Proteas, which look like brilliantly colored, spiky balls, and dendrobium orchids, richly hued blossoms which grow on stalks like snapdragons, form a rapidly growing, but as yet, fledgling commodity. In 1980, they accounted for just $635,000 in sales.

Anthuriums, on the other hand, which are native to the rain forests of South and Central America, are the Aloha State's big flower export. In 1980, Hawaii's 228 anthurium farmers shipped 2.5 million dozens of the waxy, heart-shaped flowers around the world.

Although 1981 marked an off-year for anthuriums, -- that decline was largely due to the rise in value of the dollar, which hurt sales in Hawaii's best anthurium markets, West Germany and Italy. The industry's current challenge, explains grower Jules Gervais, is in developing a market on the mainland United States. According to a recent study, the state's flower and nursery products exports to the Mainland could increase 10 times.

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