IT’S LEI-AWAY TIME

Hawai­ian-style flo­ral wreaths are gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity at grad­u­a­tions in Cal­i­for­nia. They’re a lu­cra­tive part of some florists’ busi­ness.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS BEAT - By Sa­man­tha Ma­sunaga sa­man­tha.ma­sunaga@latimes.com

Af­ter count­less years at her craft, Nel­lie Lua’s fin­gers have found a rhythm.

The 68-year-old jabs a nee­dle through the bot­tom of each car­na­tion blos­som and tugs the frilly flower along the thread. In 20 min­utes, she’s strung 100 blos­soms to fin­ish a pink dou­ble car­na­tion lei, a pop­u­lar grad­u­a­tion gift at her store, Is­land Leis & Bou­quets in Car­son.

In a year, she and her fam­ily will make and sell about 1,000 leis, most of which will adorn the necks of grad­u­ates, said her daugh­ter, also named Nel­lie Lua.

“For grad­u­a­tion, you have to have a lei,” she said. “It’s just nor­mal.”

In re­cent years, the well-known Hawai­ian gar­land has wo­ven its way into com­mence­ment tra­di­tions, par­tic­u­larly in Cal­i­for­nia. Along the way, the grad­u­a­tion lei has be­come a lu­cra­tive part of some flo­ral busi­nesses.

The most ubiq­ui­tous lei — made of pur­ple den­dro­bium or­chids — is stocked by florists, the Los An­ge­les Flower Mar­ket and even South­land su­per­mar­kets. Ven­dors of­ten set up booths near col­lege cam­puses to snag last-minute shop­pers.

Rosa Kang, owner of flower im­porter and whole­saler Trop­i­cal USA, said she has a con­tract to pro­vide the leis sold on cam­pus dur­ing USC’s com­mence­ment. She gen­er­ally sells about 3,000 orchid leis in car­di­nal and gold — the school col­ors. Over­all, she said she sells about 5,000 leis a year.

“In the last five years, it re­ally picked up as a grad­u­a­tion item,” Kang said.

She and sev­eral sellers say the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity prob­a­bly stems from the large num­ber of Pa­cific Is­lan­ders in Cal­i­for­nia, who brought the lei-giv­ing cus­tom with them.

The Golden State is sec­ond only to Hawaii in terms of the na­tive Hawai­ian or and other Pa­cific Is­lan­der pop­u­la­tion, with 144,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the 2010 cen­sus data. About a third of them live in South­ern Cali- for­nia.

“Back in Hawaii, you don’t just have one lei,” said Jean Yoshida, a 76year-old Hawaii na­tive who lives in Car­son. “You have them up to here,” she said, ges­tur­ing to­ward her eyes.

With her other hand, Yoshida cra­dled plas­tic boxes con­tain­ing pur­ple orchid leis from Is­land Leis & Bou­quets. “It re­ally is tra­di­tion,” she said. Lei aware­ness has spread to grad­u­ates of all eth­nic­i­ties and back­grounds.

At Is­land Leis & Bou­quets, most of the lei or­ders come from cus­tomers who are not Pa­cific Is­lan­ders, Lua said. The or­der forms cover a bul­letin board be­hind the cash register, and a nearby re­frig­er­a­tor is stacked with plas­tic boxes filled with orchid leis of ev­ery color.

“Ev­ery­one knows Hawaii,” Lua said. “The lei sym­bol­izes the spirit of aloha, which is love. It makes a state­ment.”

Grad­u­ates also like the func­tion­al­ity. Leis are eas­ier to carry than a stiff bou­quet of flow­ers, which can be “a bit of a drag,” Kang said. Also, guys who might balk at clutch­ing a bou­quet are more will­ing to sport a lei.

The grow­ing in­ter­est is boost­ing rev­enue for florists such as Is­land Leis & Bou­quets, which has seen its lei sales in­crease by at least 50% since it opened 11 years ago, Lua said. Grad­u­a­tion sea­son, which runs from May to early July, is the store’s most prof­itable time.

“It keeps us af loat,” she said. “We get wed­dings and fu­ner­als, but grad­u­a­tion sea­son is our big sea­son.”

Some fam­i­lies or­der di­rectly from Hawaii. At Cindy’s Lei & Flower Shoppe in Honolulu, one of the old­est lei stands in Hawaii, man­ager Karen Lau Lee said they ship many or­ders to Cal­i­for­nia, but have also sent leis to states such as Mas­sachusetts, Ken­tucky and Mon­tana – wher­ever Hawaii lo­cals at­tend col­lege.

Prices can range from a $12 for a del­i­cate strand of or­chids at the Los An­ge­les Flower Mar­ket to $80 for a bushy dou­ble car­na­tion lei at Lua’s store.

Most orchid leis are made in Thai­land, then shipped to the U.S., Kang said. Loose f low­ers and ma­te­ri­als for other kinds of leis are sourced from as far as Brazil or Costa Rica (tuberose) or as near as Hawaii (plume­ria, kukui nuts).

For some­thing a lit­tle more per­ma­nent, there are rib­bon leis, money leis, candy leis and gummy leis, which are es­pe­cially pop­u­lar with ele­men­tary school grad­u­ates, Lua said. Kang said she’s even seen con­dom leis.

“You name it. Any­thing you can think of, they make lei for it,” she said.

For Lua, 40, and her fam­ily, leimak­ing is just as much a busi­ness main­stay as a fam­ily tra­di­tion.

Lua’s fa­ther was from Oahu, and his rel­a­tives taught the el­der Lua how to make leis. She, in turn, taught her daugh­ter.

“I can’t re­mem­ber when I haven’t known how to make leis,” the younger Lua said as she pulled open a box of ti leaves.

Long work days end­ing at 3 a.m. are not un­com­mon dur­ing grad­u­a­tion sea­son. For ex­tra help, she’ll call in her cousins, nieces and neph­ews, all of whom have learned the art of leimak­ing.

“They have to re­mem­ber it,” she said. “It’s their cul­ture.”

Pho­tog raphs by Jenna Schoene­feld Los An­ge­les Times

NEL­LIE LUA, left, and her mother, also named Nel­lie Lua, at their store, Is­land Leis & Bou­quets in Car­son. Each year they make about 1,000 leis, most of which will adorn the necks of grad­u­ates.

THE EL­DER Nel­lie Lua makes a lei. The most com­mon lei has pur­ple den­dro­bium or­chids.

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