In the early '70s, Jim Little was living in faculty housing at Punahou School, where he started the photography program. "This plumeria tree kept banging the side of the house, and Brock and Clark would say, 'Dad, that tree's keeping us awake,'" he remembers. His sons-renowned today as late big-wave rider Brock Little and shorebreak photographer Clark Little-were relieved when Jim trimmed it back. He was left with a pile of plumeria branches on the ground, and the housing supervisor told him, "Stick 'em in a tin can and keep 'em watered." In three months Jim had forty rooted trees with flowers. He brought them to a garden center, where the owner reluctantly agreed to sell them on consignment. They all sold within ten days. "Wow," the accidental horticulturalist realized. "Maybe nobody's doing this in Hawai'i."
Fifty years later, Little Plumeria Farms is a fragrant oasis, with four thousand trees on twenty acres of former sugarcane land above Haleiwa. The farm has become a family operation, run by Jim, Clark and Clark's son Dane. In May they began offering tours to visitors for the first time, sharing their knowledge of growing the attractive melia (Hawaiian for plumeria), introduced to Hawaii by Dr. William Hillebrand in 1860. While the tree-popular for landscaping and lei making-is ubiquitous in the Islands, the trees on the Littles' farm are unique, the selective and serendipitous result of cross-pollinating flowers with exceptional traits.
With some four thousand trees, Little Plumeria Farms on Oahu's North Shore is home to unique hybrids and varieties developed by Jim Little, who started the farm fifty years ago. Above right, Jim (center) with his son, surfer and photographer Clark (right) and grandson Dane (left), who help run the farm, which opened to the public for tours last May.
"We always say we want the mom to fool around, because we want different colors and different smells," Clark laughs. Building on four generations of homebred cultivars, the flowers on the farm are an aesthetic delight, with fragrances like coconut, Pez candy and baby powder. Petals with swirly patterns and golden centers. True to their names, JL Metallica boasts a silvery-purple tint, and JL Madame Pele is white with red veins flowing through its petals.
On the upper terrace is a circle of extraordinary hybrids that Jim bred and named for family members. JL Dane is a yellow flower with pointed, dark-red tips. The outer edges of the petals of JL Brock's Wave are magenta shadowed by a strip of carnation pink, resembling a fiery ocean swell against a white sky. Clark and Dane have planted hundreds of seedlings in the nursery area, the offspring of two trees with desirable traits, but they don't yet know what the results will be. It takes two to five years before the first bloom, so there's plenty of anticipation. "It's like children," says Jim, who turned 86 in August. "You don't know what they're going to look like."
Reflecting on how much joy the trees bring, Jim shares a story from when he first acquired the lease. He asked a brawny Hawaiian man driving a tractor on the farm next door if he would help Jim clear the land. "What you going to plant?" the driver wanted to know. "Plumeria," Jim replied. "Oh," the driver said approvingly. "The aina [land] going be happy."