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Flowers and Plants of Hawaii

June is from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, but is currently residing in New York. She loves to cook naturally with plants from her garden.


Flowers and Plants of Hawaii

The beauty of the Hawaiian Islands is not only due to the abundance of flowers and plants but also to the vast varieties of species that the Hawaiian Islands have evolved to.

Some species are indigenous to the islands while the majority have been imported, but they all flourish in harmony in the near perfect weather conditions with the nearly perfect nutrient-rich volcanic soil.

Welcome to a minuscule example of the floral beauty of Hawaii.

Hawaii State Flower - Yellow Hibiscus

Yellow Hibiscus Hawaii

Yellow Hibiscus Hawaii

Hibiscus brackenridgei (H. b. mokuleianus) Hawaii State Flower

Hibiscus brackenridgei (H. b. mokuleianus) Hawaii State Flower

The Yellow Hibiscus - Pua Maò-hau-hele

The yellow hibiscus is now the state flower of Hawai'i, but it wasn't always so.

Many people are confused over this fact as the native white hibiscus was adopted as the territorial flower 2 May 1923, by the Legislature of the Territory of Hawaii, and approved by W. R. Farrington, the Governor of the Territory of Hawaii.

The indigenous white hibiscus mutabilis, known as pua aloalo (hibiscus flower) changed from white to pink to red during the day, so many thought that the red hibiscus was the official territory flower.

In 1959, when Hawai'i became a state, the red hibiscus became the official state flower and it was not until 1988 when the yellow hibiscus flower was then chosen as the official state flower.

It was 6 June 1988, that the Hawaii Legislature adopted the native yellow hibiscus (Hibiscus brackenridgei), also known as the maò-hau-hele, as the "official flower of the State."

Every island is represented by a different flower.


Island of Hawaii - Ohi`a Lehua

The Island of Hawaii is represented by the Ohi`a lehua, also known as the pua lehua, and is the blossom of the Ohia tree and is usually red, but sometimes yellow.

The Ohi'a tree is the first tree to rebirth itself from the lava and is known as Pele's unrequited love. There is a legend of the handsome Ohi'a and the beautiful Lehua that I will tell you later.

Yellow Lehua Blossom - Pua Mele Kapa

Yellow Lehua Blossom - pua mele o' kapa

Yellow Lehua Blossom - pua mele o' kapa

Usually, the lehua blossoms of the Ohi'a are a bright scarlet red, but they are known to also bloom a pale shade of yellow (shown), white and occasionally an orange blossom.

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The Ohi'a Tree

The Ohi'a tree usually has a gnarled, twisted grey trunk with thick peeling bark like the one in the photo above. They start out looking like little desolate, windswept bushes growing in the lava fields.

The very old trees will reach heights of over 80 feet with very, very thick twisted trunks like the one pictured below. These tree trunks, when cut down and cured make the most beautiful, decorative and fascinating log poles for homes with their lovely twisted trunks.

Ancient Twisted Ohia Tree


Island of Maui - Lokelani

The lokelani or rose is the flower that represents the island of Maui. To be more specific, it is the damask rose (rosa damascena).

The damask rose is very popular on the island of Maui, in fact, it is so popular for a long time it was called the "Maui Rose".

For centuries, it grew wild along the roadsides of Ulupalakua and was the very first rose grown on McKee's Ulupalakua Rose Ranch. It became the official island flower in 1923.

This photo of the damask rose and tuberose lei is courtesy of The Hawaiian Lei Company who make the most gorgeous leis and will ship to the mainland.

Lokelani Haku Lei

Island of O'ahu - Pua `ilima

The 'ilima flower represents the island of Oahu and is from the indigenous dodder shrub (sida fallax)which is a close cousin to the hibiscus family.

The 'ilima flowers are very small in comparison to a hibiscus as they are only about an inch in width and they are paper thin. The flowers are so delicate that it takes around 500 blossoms to make one lei. When strung, they make beautiful yellow-orange leis that are stunning when worn against a black background.

The blossoms are also used for medicine. The juice squeezed from the blossoms are used as a mild laxative for babies to relieve gas and is called kanaka-maika'i. We also use it as a pregnancy tonic that promotes a strong immune system and eases the pain of childbirth.

Ilima Leis

Mokihana (Rutaceae Pelea anisata)

Mokihana (Rutaceae Pelea anisata)

Island of Kaua`i - Mokihana

The mokihana that represents the Island of Kaua'i comes from the native endemic bush (pelea anisata).

The only place in the world that this plant is found is on the slopes of Mount Waialelae on the island of Kaua'i and in the rainforest of the Big Island of Hawaii.

It is from the Rutaceae (citrus) family.

Mokihana and Maile Lei

The mokihana really isn't a flower, but a small leathery, cubed shaped fruit with an anise scent.

The fruit berries change colors from green to brown. It grows on a shrub with thin, leather-like, elliptic, opposite leaves that are strongly pungent with anise scent. The scent is sometimes retained for years, in the dry wood as well as in the berries.

It was once one of the ancient Hawaiians favorite perfumes. The twigs and berries were dried and placed between the folds of their kapa (tapa) cloth.


Island of Moloka'i - Pua Kukui

The pua kukui represents the island of Moloka'i and is also known as the candlenut tree (aleurites moluccana).

The silvery, light green leaves and the small white flowers are either woven or strung into leis and represent the island of Moloka'i, but the nut of the kukui tree are what is really valuable in Hawaiian culture.

Hawaiian Pua Kukui Lei

Hawaiian Kukui Nut Lei

The Kukui Nut Tree Had Many Uses

The creamy white kernel of the kukui nut is very oily and in the days of old, the oil was used not only for polishing but also for lighting the torches and later for the lamps and kukui hele po (lanterns).

The soft wood was carved out for canoes, the gum from the bark of the tree was used as dye to paint the kapa cloth and for tattooing; the shells of nut and the roots of the tree were used to make black dye.

To this day, we still use the roasted nut as a very tasty seasoning called inamona and every part of the tree is still used effectively for medicinal purposes. The kukui nuts are also polished, strung into leis and used for jewelry.

Kauna`oa Vines Growing on Rocks

Kauna`oa Vines Growing on Rocks

Pua Kauna`oa

Pua Kauna`oa

Island of Lana'i - Kauna`oa

The kauna`oa, that represents the island of Lana'i, is also known as the native dodder (cuscuta sandwichiana). It is a rare species that can be very difficult to find.

The kauna`oa really isn't a flower at all.

It is actually an air plant that is a parasitic twining vine. The yellow and orange strands that grow from the vine are used in lei making.

The yellowish flowers of the plant grow in tiny clusters along the stems and are only 1/16 of an inch.

As you can see from Ron Gingerich's photo on the right, the flowers are like little nubs on the orange colored strands.

It grows in coastal areas with sandy soils at elevations ranging from sea level to 975 feet. It parasitizes a variety of other indigenous and endemic plants on all of the main Hawaiian islands except Kaua'i and Kaho'olawe.

Kauna`oa Lei Making

Kauna`oa Lei Making

Kauna`oa Lei Making

On the left, you can see the kauna`oa being cleaned to get it ready to make a lei. In the parades, the pa`u riders look so beautiful wearing these leis with their bright orange pa`u

Island of Ni'ihau - Kahelelani

The island of Ni'ihau is represented by not a flower lei, but a lei made from tiny white shells found only on the island of Ni'ihau called Kahelelani. They are also referred to as Ni'ihau shells, pupu (small bit), or incorrectly as laiki (rice) and momi (pearl) shells.

The island of Ni'ihau is very arid and doesn't get enough rainwater to support the growth of the beautiful flowers that are abundant on the other islands. Because of this the highly valued Ni'ihau shell was chosen to represent the island instead.

The laiki and momi, although still very small, are actually larger shells and can also be found on the island of Kaua'i. In comparison, a double strand choker of kahelelani will require 600-700 shells as opposed to about 250 for a double strand of momi shells.

Lena Mendonca collects Ni'ihau Leis

Lena Mendonca collects Ni'ihau Leis

Niihau Shell Leis

Ni'ihau Shell Leis Are Very Rare

Most kahelelani shells used today are from Kaua'i and are called Kaua'i kahelelani because the true Ni'ihau kahelelani are so tiny and so rare they are very costly with prices that compete with very high-quality gems.

They range in color from a very light brown, almost white, to reddish-tan and very rarely a tannish pink.

The making of Ni'ihau shell leis is a very tedious process indeed. On a good day of shell picking, a skilled picker might harvest a film canister of prime quality kahelelani shells in about four hours.

All this time is spent on hands and knees or lying in the sand. People are always shocked when they discover that these shells are all hand picked one at a time.

The true Ni'hau shells are not only rare because they only grow around the one island, but also because Ni'ihau is a privately owned island that no one is allowed to visit.

It is home to a mere 226 of mostly pure Hawaiian residents. The people that live there may leave if they want to, but if they do leave, they are not allowed to return.

The people of Ni'ihau still live in the traditional Hawaiian way and are are not governed by any country, only by the owners of the island, the Robinson family. The shells are occasionally brought from the island when supply boats visit the other islands for supplies.

Once the Robinsons purchased the island in 1864, they made a commitment to the maintenance of the Hawaiian culture.

In ancient Hawaiian history, only the highest members of Hawaiian society such as the Ali'i and Kahuna could wear Kahelelani shells.

The shells have been written about in the journals and books of early western visitors. In 1873, Isabella Bird wrote in her book, "Six Months in the Sandwich Islands", "Niihau is famous for the necklaces of shells six yards long as well as for the extreme beauty and variety of the shells which are found there." These lengths are now a very rare sight indeed.

Hinahina Plant ~ Heliotropium Anomalum

Hinahina Plant ~ Heliotropium Anomalum

Hinahina Flower~ Heliotropium Anomalum

Hinahina Flower~ Heliotropium Anomalum

Island of Kaho'olawe - Hinahina

The island of Kaho'olawe is represented by the hinahina (Heliotropium anomalum var. argenteum) also called beach heliotrope.

Hinahina means gray or grayish. The Hawaiians gave this same name to other plants that were gray or grayish in appearances, such as the silver sword and the Spanish moss.

Soon after the Spanish Moss was introduced to Hawaii around 1920, the Hawaiians fashioned a lei from it.

Because the plant reminded them of kauna'oa in texture, they used the same techniques to make the lei hinahina as was used for the lei kauna'oa.

The Hawaiians named Spanish moss, 'umi'umi o Dole, meaning Dole's beard.

It was named for the famous gray beard of Sanford B. Dole, first and only president of the Hawaiian Republic. He was also the cousin of James Dole, founder of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company on Oahu in 1851.

Pele's Hair ~ Spanish Moss

Pele's Hair

Another name given to Spanish moss is Pele's Hair.

This is the common name that most people in Hawaii know it as today.

It's official Latin name is Tillandsia usneoides (growing like hair on statue head).

Regardless of the name you want to call it, Pele's Hair is not a moss at all.

It is an air plant that grow in the trees, hanging from tree branches, but it does not rely on the tree branches for its nutrients. It is an epiphytic plant from the Bromeliaceae family.

In ceremonies and parades, Pele's Hair is almost always substituted for the native hinahina to represent the island of Kaho'olawe since it is easier to get Spanish moss than it is to get the endemic hinahina.

Kaho`olawe Pa'u Rider

Pa'u Princess of Kaho`olawe Marisa Kaleohano

Pa'u Princess of Kaho`olawe Marisa Kaleohano

See the hinahina lei of the Kaho`olawe Pa'u Rider, Princess Marisa Kaleohano. She is also wearing Pele's Hair in her leipo'o (head lei) and in the horses haku lei (open braid garland).

Everyone Can Kokua

The word kokua means help in Hawaiian.

Everyone can do their part to kokua in reducing landfill waste by refusing plastic bags in the grocery stores.

Buy several reusable canvas tote bags to use instead. Better yet, buy your totes with Hawaiian floral designs. Everyone will love your bags and want to know where you got them!

This is a great looking and sturdy canvas tote bag with Hawaiian hibiscus print straps. It has plenty of room to fill with groceries with a front pocket to hold your coupons. Pretty cool, huh?

King Kamehameha I Statue Covered in Leis


Lei Making in Hawaii

Lei making, the stringing, weaving or braiding of flowers and plants, to form a garland or wreath, has long been a cultural art of Hawaii and has as many diverse meanings as there are occasions to wear them. The history and uses of lei's in Hawaii is a book in itself and will have to be covered at another time.

Instead, we will visit a few of the thousands of varieties of flowers and plants that are used in Hawaii to create our leis, decorate our homes and adorn our bodies.

Plumeria Flowers


The plumeria, or frangipani, is one of the most common flowers in Hawaii, yet come in a wide variety of colors and hues and sizes and shapes.