Those beautiful flowers you see in the picture above? Bill Mertens grew them.
Growing things is what Bill, now 73, has long done, pretty much since he was young and decided that he didn’t want “a job where I’d be inside all the time” like his father, a lawyer and judge.
Agriculture has taken the Pennsylvania native around the world, from Molokai to the Philippines to Australia and China, all places where he worked at, established, managed or consulted on pineapple plantations.
But for the past two decades home has been Maui. There, Bill and his wife, Judy, own and run Anuhea Flowers, where they grow some two dozen varieties of protea flowers.
When they began setting up shop in 1994, the Mertens were getting in on a relatively young industry in Hawaii. Even though proteas appear tropical, with their vibrant colors and exotic shapes – like deranged artichokes, or painted, overstuffed pincushions – they aren’t native to the islands.
Proteas are part of what’s known as “Antarctic flora,” and they have their ancient roots in Gondwana, the southern supercontinent of hundreds of millions of years ago that broke apart and left its mark throughout much of the Southern Hemisphere – in New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, southern South America and South Africa.
Those places are the native ground of the protea – particularly the South African ecosystem known as the “fynbos” – but in the 1960s, proteas began to migrate to Hawaii. In subsequent years, horticulturalists from the University of Hawaii selected cultivars and developed hybrids that would work particularly well in Hawaii. Proteas began to become a bigger part of Hawaii’s cut flower industry.
The Hawaiian advantage in growing the flowers is an obvious one: mild year-round temperatures. That means the flowers grow well and can be harvested and shipped during all the big flower-buying holidays, from Thanksgiving through Mother’s Day.
But the business isn’t easy, and it’s getting tougher.
“With the protea, everything is done by hand,” Bill says. “Hand harvesting, hand selecting, hand packing – nothing is done by machine. It is extremely labor intensive.”
And like most everything else on the islands, costs are high. That gives Central American growers an edge in selling to the mainland market. And California growers have an advantage due to their lower transportation costs (and none of the inspection hassles that agricultural products from Hawaii can face).
As a result, the business of Anuhea Flowers is shifting. Instead of selling large amounts of flowers to wholesalers, Anuhea is focusing on the retail market, with Judy overseeing the production and marketing of beautiful and unique arrangements, gift boxes, wreaths and more, for both the local market and the mainland. A local artist even designs special inserts for their flower gift boxes.
And then there’s the asparagus.
Apparently, the lateritic soils at nearly 3,000 feet elevation on the western slope of the Haleakalea volcano have some kind of magical effect on asparagus.
“It’s tender, very sweet and has so much flavor – you taste it next to mainland asparagus and it’s just no contest,” Bill says (that’s Bill with a bunch in the picture immediately above).
And the best thing, he adds, is that while growing and selling proteas is now a bit of a struggle, the asparagus is an easier crop that practically sells itself.
“It’s a pull market,” Bill says. “We can sell 100 pounds every two days to Whole Foods. Everybody wants it.”
Thirty acres are now planted to asparagus at Anuhea, and more is going in.
Alas, the asparagus doesn’t make it to the mainland. But look for it if you’re in Maui, at Whole Foods or small upcountry markets. And of course you can always get a “taste” of Anuhea, of a different sort, with their spectacular fresh cut protea flowers.
Photos courtesy Anuhea Flowers. Learn more or order flowers at their website, or see their very active Facebook page.