Hawaii — the name alone evokes glistening visions of paradise; emerald hills and valleys, topaz waterfalls and lagoons, diamond white beaches and shimmering obsidian stretches of volcanic coastline, all sprawled across a sapphire sea and drenched in the floral perfume of perpetual spring.
For lovers of cannabis, that gem-encrusted island cluster possesses an extra layer of allure thanks to the long-standing (and well-earned) reputation it has cultivated where cultivation is concerned. The unfettered fertility of Hawaii’s volcanic soil and the ceaseless beaming of its nearly seasonless sun produce some of the most highly prized agricultural products on Earth, including sugar cane, coffee, pineapple — and yes — cannabis.
Hawaiian bud earned a place in the pantheon of pot during the 1970s, the first golden age of modern ganja. This was long before formal branding was a part of cannabis, but “Maui Wowie” still made a big enough impact to become a global household name. To this day, not only do people still recognize and respond to that name, it’s on the short list of old-school cultivars that are still grown and enjoyed in (roughly) their original form. Bottom line: Hawaiian cannabis is the stuff of legends.
Hawaiian Seed Company co-founder and CEO, River Young, is counting on the tangible expression of that legend in the feeling and flavor of the company’s proprietary genetics to propel the fledgling company to soaring heights.
Young is no stranger to Hawaiian cultivation. He was raised on Kauai’s North Shore and worked as the manager of a lettuce, tomato and cucumber farm there, giving him an intimate understanding of the unique advantages and challenges of island agriculture.
As far as he’s concerned, finding “the best genetics possible” is the first step in establishing a successful brand.
“We foresee that genetics will ultimately control the growth of cannabis and hemp companies,” Young said. “The genetics here in Hawaii can withstand trade winds and high humidity, so they tend to be tougher strains, meaning people in Florida and other climates with high humidity find them especially appealing.”
But those hardy genetics didn’t just appear from thin air: they’re the result of the fastidious seed hoarding of his business partner, co-founder and head breeder Sol Kahn.
From Bags to Riches
About 25 years ago, in 1994, Kahn planted the literal seeds that would eventually blossom into Hawaiian Seed Company. As is often the case in these stories, they were generally unremarkable bag seeds he just happened to find, but when they bloomed, so did his lifelong passion for cultivation.
“I started breeding in 1994 and I haven’t stopped since,” he said. “I remember exactly what that plant looked and smelled like. It was this light green and orange with popcorn nugs and a very tropical sweetness, like mango. I grew them out, I had some males and grew them all, then realized they crossed and created seeds.”
That simple discovery inspired Kahn to pursue increasingly complex breeding projects in his backyard and at hidden spots up in the mountains, using seeds which he obsessively collected — a habit that Young, a childhood friend, used to laugh at, until it formed the foundation of their company.
“I thought he was completely nuts for collecting seeds all these years and it looks like he was correct — there’s definitely value in those genetics,” Young said.
What started as an eccentric hobby has grown into a massive private stock of cannabis genetics, encompassing over 60,000 seeds, including the heirloom island genetics (and accompanying tropical flavors) that serve as the brand’s signature.
It’s worth noting that, despite the brand’s island roots (and still island-bound leadership team), the official corporate headquarters of Hawaiian Seed Company is in Oregon, where the laws are already in place for this level of cannabis commerce. The company is working towards bringing their company “full circle” with operations in Hawaii, but for now, Oregon provides them not only the legal freedom to operate but a unique space to do so — a former elementary school.
“We didn’t kick any kids out. It was vacant and had moved to a new location,” Kahn said. “It turned out to be a perfect location for us and we’re ultimately hoping to turn it into a cannabis learning center.”
Hawaii’s Colorful, Unstable, Terp-Filled Edge
There’s a lot of different factors involved in growing a trusted cannabis brand, but chief among them is establishing the legitimacy and value of your signature strains. Like many contemporary cannabis cultivators, Hawaiian Seed Company utilizes the massive — and ever-growing — Phylos Galaxy to identify and validate their flagship strains.
Khan said Phylos — a company he describes as “frickin’ awesome” — offers him and other cultivators the perfect tool for elevating their brand above the noise of a crowded field and protecting their genetics from unscrupulous dudes looking for a quick come-up at the expense of someone else’s hard work.
“There’s so many bullsh*tters out there who will take your strain and change the name, and [the Phylos Galaxy] just keeps the growers honest and keeps track of strains so they don’t get lost in the wind,” he said, adding that the ability to quickly discover other strains with both similar and distant genetics helps him “map out a more visual interpretation of the genetics’ travels.”
That ability to map the ancestry of cannabis cultivars has proven invaluable when working with the ephemeral genetics endemic to Hawaiian herb. Some cultivators, at least publicly, place a high premium on genetic stability, but Kahn is not among them. He typically just lets Mother Nature do her thing when it comes to phenotype variation, a philosophy rooted in the aggressively diverse lineage of old-school Hawaiian pakalolo.
“I don’t really worry too much about stabilization. Back in the day, there was none, everything just got cross bred with each other,” he said. “In Hawaii especially, everything was breeding and getting crossed with all kinds of pollen — Thai, Afghani, everything got so mixed up — so I’m not trying to make one pheno that’s ‘perfect’ and then clone it.”
But when he does find a need to stabilize something or just feels like jazzing around with genetics, the year-round sunlight of the North Shore allows him to do so in less than half the time it would take a breeder on the mainland
Another thing Kahn doesn’t worry about much is potency. Most of his creations test in the high teens to the mid-20s for cannabinoid content. This is partially because he personally prefers lighter, more mellow effects, but mostly it’s the result of an intense focus on other characteristics like terpene profile and — here’s a novel idea where flower cultivation is concerned — color.
That success of that last mission, discovering vibrantly colored cultivars, is immediately apparent in the mature flowers of Akala Kush, a deep lime-green flower punctuated by dazzling bursts of pink and fuchsia pistils sprawling out like glowing antennae.
And while color is an important (and deeply undervalued) aspect of cannabis, it’s practically impossible to overstate the importance of a strain’s terpene profile when it comes to how it’s received by the public. At a time when potency is more or less a given — particularly for cannabis destined for extraction — the smell and flavor of a strain is the main source of its unique identity.
Young is confident that those searching for terps will find much to love in the distinctly Hawaiian flavor profiles of the company’s flowers.
“From the lab tests and feedback we’re getting it seems like these strains do hold some tropical flavors in terms of terpenes,” Young said. “If you’re a processor and you get a hold of some of our flowers the terps are going to have a very unique flavor, so it’s very attractive to them and it stands out for growers as well.”
Coming to the Mainland
Those living in Northern California will soon be able to see (and smell) for themselves: Hawaiian Seed Company has coordinated with Dark Heart Nursery to make some of their top strains available to consumers as clones, including Kahn’s undisputed favorite strain, Midnight Splendor, an “absolutely fantastic mix” he’s been working on for nearly a decade.
“It’s Kali Mist, an old school strain that’s been grown on Kauai forever, crossed with Kauai Purple — a deep purple indica I got from an uncle a couple years ago — crossed into Girl Scout Cookies for potency and flavor and then crossed with Grandaddy Purple for a little more color,” he said. “What we got was giant, long fuchsia spears of amazingness. It’s covered in resin and when you grind it up, it’s purple, pink, green and beautiful.”
Kahn is proud of the terpene profiles he’s harnessed and excited for people to taste them, whether that means smoking a bowl or dabbing concentrate extracted from his flowers, but he’s most enthusiastic about the whole plant — and much less so about the direction and character of the industry surrounding it.
He hopes his love of the whole plant will translate to the final product and help those who enjoy it embrace a more holistic view of cannabis.
“Part of why we founded Hawaiian Seed Company was to bring that retro ’70s vibe back to cannabis,” Kahn said. “There’s a lot of disrespect in the new cannabis industry… we do this because we love it, we love this amazing plant and we want to share it, but we want to respect it.”
No matter how you feel about the direction of the cannabis industry, it’s hard to find anything bad to say about beautiful cannabis cultivars with unique terpene profiles, and that’s exactly what Hawaiian Seed Company is all about — providing a mouthwatering slice of the islands.
“It’s the originality of the flavors, just having something that’s tropical and different,” Young said. “Maybe there’s a certain connection to vacation or something, but people just seem a little more relaxed when they smoke our strains.”
There’s no substitute for experiencing the North Shore in person, but breathing in a fragrant, intoxicating cloud of its tropical essence and sinking gently into a mellow, productive buzz is almost like a smokeable Hawaiian vacation — and it’s certainly cheaper than buying a plane ticket.
Originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.