When Dick Wheeler arrived on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i in the 1980s and sought out 10 acres of arid, volcanic land to purchase, he planned to make a living as a beekeeper. And, for a while, he did. But it takes a rare personality to live harmoniously among the honey bees. Not everyone in the Wheeler clan enjoyed the buzz and constant threat of a sting.
“We wanted a family business, but bees never quite grabbed my wife,” says Wheeler, who is 68. “So I sold the bee business to a watermelon farmer and planted thousands of plumeria trees. It’s been 25 years and the flowers have been good to us.”
In Hawai`i, plumeria is not found in the wild. But the flower carries such a sumptuous scent that it has overcome the stigma of its foreign origin to become the choice bloom of the Hawaiian lei—the ubiquitous flower necklace that people gift one another as a symbol of a warm greeting.
At Moloka’i Plumerias, the pinwheels of velvety petals come in hues of red, pink, white, and classic yellow. The yellow flowers are the hardiest, and also the most fragrant. On Wheeler’s farm, they are more plentiful than any other color.
“This flower truly has the best smell, and that’s coming from some expert noses in the perfume industry who want to recreate it,” says Wheeler, who wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “surfing grandpa.”
Wheeler’s farm has played host to senior scientists from Robertet, the iconic French fragrance manufacturer. The perfumers traveled from halfway across the globe with hopes of discovering a viable method of bottling the luscious plumeria scent. Those efforts, however, proved unsuccessful.
“The plumeria is a complete perfume, it’s got all the right notes,” Wheeler says, referring to the flower’s redolence of citrus, gardenia and jasmine. “But it’s hard to mimic nature’s perfection.”
The best way to capture the plumeria’s intoxicating scent is by Hawai’i tradition: simply pick the blossoms, string a lei and proudly wear it.
To harvest his flowers, Wheeler handpicks each individual blossom, pinching it at the base and giving it a delicate tug. A blossom is ready to be removed from the tree only when its petals are on the verge of opening, a practice that maximizes the flower’s lifespan and freshness once it’s been strung on a lei.
Most of the leis assembled by Wheeler are packaged and shipped to hula halaus, or schools, on the U.S. mainland, where plumeria doesn’t grow as plentifully, as it is native to the subtropical Americas. A smaller chunk of business is provided by visitors, who can call the farm to schedule a tour, during which guests pick their own flowers and learn how to string a lei, which typically requires up to 50 blossoms. Local residents seeking to gift a lei to newlyweds or graduates also patronize the farm. Order pickup is self-service, and it operates on the honor system: Customers are instructed by handwritten note to retrieve their order from a temperature-controlled closet and leave cash payment in a nearby desk drawer.
“I figure if somebody does something funny with the money, he needs it more than I do and he should have it,” Wheeler says.
The farm’s biggest bloom occurs in March and April, with the blossoms holding strong through September. In winter, when the trees are bare, Wheeler is forced to turn away orders.
“It’s pretty low-key here, I admit it,” Wheeler says. “Like, right now, I’m walking around the farm shaking my head at all the work I should be doing. Oh, well! Instead, I think I’m going surfing.”