Denby Fawcett: Fresh Flower Lei Are Becoming 'Crazy Expensive' - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Flower and labor shortages have forced businesses to increase the prices of lei, the enduring symbol of love in Hawaii.

I have slowly become accustomed to high prices for ordinary foods like eggs and cheese as well as needed products like birthday cakes, gasoline and building materials, but I was taken aback last week when I saw a maile lei selling for $100.

OK, maile has always been special, but the same afternoon I chatted with lei maker Nelita Gabbuat at Nita’s Leis and Flower Shoppe who told me the plain white tuberose lei she was stringing would sell for $18.

At Beretania Florist’s Hawaii Lei Stand website, I saw the same type of single strand tuberose for $24.99.

It’s not just special lei like maile and pikake that are expensive now. Everyday flower garlands like tuberose also cost more.

Tuberose smell nice, but single stranders have always been “plain Jane” utilitarian to me — a lei you would never give to impress.

Maybe I am looking back too far, but $18 to $25 is what I used to spend when I wanted a lei to make a statement. Not for a simple white tuberose.

“Lei have become crazy expensive,” said my friend Clarissa Cosson. “You can’t find anything for under $20 unless it is a single orchid lei.”

Checking out the lei shops in Chinatown, I found what Cosson said is generally true.

There were exceptions of lei selling for less than $20, such as the $14 single-strand plumeria lei I saw former Mayor Kirk Caldwell buy in multiples on Friday at Cindy’s Lei and Flower Shoppe.

Plumeria lei Kirk Caldwell Karen Lee at Cindy’s Lei and Flower Shoppe
Former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell picks up bags of yellow plumeria lei from manager Karen Lee at Cindy’s Lei and Flower Shoppe in Chinatown. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

He said he was going to take them to a neighbor island for a baby luau.

The yellow plumeria is in a class by itself. It may be relatively inexpensive compared to other garlands, but it is the lei of choice of many people, including me. It’s a bright lei with a soothing scent that will always remind me of the best days of summer.

On the relatively inexpensive side, Cindy’s sold single-strand lei made of various mixes of purple, green, white and coral orchids selling for under $20 each.

But the hard truth is if you want something special nowadays it will cost at least $50. Probably more.

Thai purple orchid lei
Even common Thai purple orchid lei sell for $10 to $15. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

Cameraman and documentary producer Mike May told me he gave up trying to buy a lei for filmmaker Heather Giugni when she was honored as the Kamaaina of the Year by the Historic Hawaii Foundation.

He had planned to spend $50 but said he called it quits after looking everywhere. He said the only possibilities he saw in refrigerated cases sold for much more.

He ended up giving Heather a card with $100 inside. He laughed while acknowledging that his monetary gift cost more than a lei but said he was unable to bring himself to spend $70 or $80 for a lei suitable for the occasion.

It would be easy to blame lei makers for the high prices, but like many business owners hit hard during the coronavirus pandemic they are struggling to stay afloat.

Karen Lee, manager of Cindy’s, said rising costs and persistent flower and labor shortages are affecting all prices.

“We have to pay more for everything now. We have to pass on the costs, to stay in business,” she said.

A key problem lei sellers face every day is a dearth of flowers.

This month, the flower shortage became painfully evident with three big lei-demanding events coming in quick succession: May Day, Mother’s Day and high school and college graduations.

Lei shops ran out of certain varieties of lei and many stopped taking lei orders in advance out of concern the flowers would not be there to fulfill the orders.

Lei makers say when they order flowers from their growers, there is no guarantee the number of flowers they ordered will actually be delivered.

“One day, we ordered a full box of flowers, but the grower showed up with only two small plastic bags of flowers,” said Fely Magallanes, manager of Nita’s.

Nelita Gabbuat of Nita’s Lei and Flower Shop leis
Nelita Gabbuat of Nita’s Leis and Flower Shoppe strings white tuberose leis that will sell for $18 each. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

There have always been shortages of certain flowers during times of heavy rain or drought, but the pandemic added a new twist. Many flower growers stopped planting and harvesting when Covid-19 forced businesses to shut down, people to stay home and special celebrations to be canceled.

Since then, some growers have dropped out of the business entirely, and others are slowly getting back to producing at full speed.

There is another factor this year: many flowers have been damaged by by the unusual amount of rain in normally dry areas such as West Oahu where many flowers are grown commercially. The many cold nights and chilly mornings also impacted flower yields.

“Plumeria are struggling. Some trees are affected by a fungus on the ground and in the plants themselves,” says Kuulei Kaʻae of Pua Melia lei stand at the airport.

Particular shortages are seen in the fragrant flowers such as ginger and pikake and the flower of Oahu, bright orange ilima.

“Ilima has become practically extinct,” said Lee, manager of Cindy’s Lei and Flower Shoppe.

Part of the problem with ilima is the tiny flowers are difficult to pick. “So tedious, so laborious,” she said.

And that is a reason many young people don’t want to keep working at their family flower-growing businesses: too laborious, too tedious.

There is also the shortage of lei stringers.

Lee said whole families or a few neighbors used to enjoy sitting under the shade of a tree in their backyards to string lei from flowers they had plucked in their gardens as a relaxing way to socialize and to make extra money by then selling their lei to downtown shops.

“Very few backyard growers and stringers have time for that anymore. It is the story of life today, Not enough time,” said Lee.

fake artificial lei leis
Locals are increasingly buying artificial lei, which used to be frowned upon but are more acceptable since they cost less and are not fragile to take as gifts to the mainland. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

She said the rising cost of fresh lei has prompted some of her customers to turn to artificial lei from China that Lee and other lei vendors sell such as the plastic kukui lei or a rubbery version of yellow plumeria and artificial maile that sells for about $40.

When real maile can cost between $70 and $100, it’s not surprising the fakes have become a more popular option. And Lee said the artificial lei are getting better.

That said, there is nothing like a handcrafted fresh flower lei to impart a sweet scent and a festive feeling.

“It is a gift that far surpasses any box of expensive chocolates,” said Lee.

So how to find a way around the high cost? Carissa Cosson said she heads out to the airport to buy from the lei stands.

“If you are buying many lei, the sellers will bargain. They are aware if they don’t offer you a good deal, you might walk down the row of other lei sellers to find a better price,” she said.

Double pink and white carnation lei selling downtown for $80
Double pink and white carnation lei sell downtown for $80. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

Kaʻae recommended being careful when you run out of time and have to buy lei in food markets.

“The lei in supermarkets and drug stores are way overpriced and many of them are stored improperly in display cases for days without being rotated,” Kaʻae said.

I have my own trick for making a single-strand tuberose and rose lei look more expensive and impressive by pulling up both sides and tying them with silk ribbons to make a choker lei.

Still, there will always be lei customers willing to go the full mile for special occasions.

When I was checking out the lei prices in Chinatown for this column, I watched as Lindsey Fassett paid $214.16 at Cindy’s for a pink-and-white double carnation lei and two custom-designed head leis for her daughter’s graduation from Campbell High School.

“She will be graduating from high school only once. She is the valedictorian. She can have any lei she wants,“ said Fassett.

It’s reassuring to know that despite escalating prices and other frustrations, most lei shop owners will not be shutting down soon.

“I l believe in the power of the lei. Somehow we will endure,” said Lee.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Thanks for a very nostalgic article about Hawaiian lei at graduation time, Denny Fawcett. No graduation is complete without a lei ceremony. We recently took a Hilo Maile and white orchid lei, plus a gorgeous orange cigar lei, to Newark, NJ, for our son’s graduation from Rutgers. It made him easy to pick out as the School of Health Programs commenced! So fragrant and beautiful!

4Kaneohe · 6 months ago

Funny to complain about the prices, they are still free to make.

winjon · 6 months ago

Ah, perspective! I am amazed at the ready availability and low cost of leis given the number of flowers and time required to make one. Costs include flowers, for the simple orchid lei it takes @ 10 stems of orchid, a single carnation lei uses @ 4 dozen. Minimum wage at $12/hr and that seems stingy for a craftsperson making a treasured legacy item. if made by a business add in rent/mortgage, taxes, licensing costs, labor costs such as unemployment insurance, social security, power, packaging, etc, And there needs to be profit for makers and sellers to live on. One wonders how they make ends meet on the prices they charge.

Barbara · 6 months ago

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