Hawaii is nothing if not a full-bodied, sensory experience. Its glorious sights—stunning beaches, verdant rainforests, lofty waterfalls—are often lauded, but it equally delights one’s nose, ears, taste buds, and touch. From heavenly cuisine and slack-key music to the, velvety sultry air, there’s no wonder why the sensual Aloha State is considered synonymous with Eden.
The flowers of Hawaii contribute to this bliss. Whether they’re blooming outside the window of your Airbnb, flourishing in Hana’s wilderness, or prospering on a boutique farm, Hawaii’s flowers—wild, diverse, sometimes radical—substantially add to the islands’ magic. Here are 9 of its most iconic blooms you may come across while riding on our Maui bike tours: some endemic, some introduced—and all enthralling in their beauty.
Sleek, waxy, shaded in reds and pinks, and shaped like a heart: There’s something downright sexy about anthuriums. Native to the Americas—specifically Argentina and Northern Mexico—the houseplant and garden gem thrives in the tropics, first arriving in Hawaii in 1889 when Hawaii’s Minister of Finance, Samuel Mills Damon, returned from England with a stem and planted it in his garden. Beginning in 1936, hobbyists throughout the islands began cultivating the flower, leading to developments that include the Ozaki (a red anthurium grown in Hilo) and the Starlight—the first anthurium to be patented.
Bird of Paradise
Few blooms strike as much joy and awe as a bird of paradise. With its vibrant orange petals—and a touch of iris spiking through—the exoticism of the flower has become emblematic of the islands, thanks in part to Georgia O’Keefe, whose time in Hawaii in the 1940s inspired her renowned piece, “White Bird of Paradise.” Known as a “crane flower” in South Africa—where it originally hails from—the striking bloom bears similarities to the banana.
Native to the Aloha State, Hawaiian Gardenia—or na’u—is one of the most fragrant flowers in the islands; found in bunches, and their scent is practically its own presence. Its alabaster hue only adds to its facility to amaze and haunt. Part of the coffee family, the flower was once prevalent on all of the Hawaiian Islands; today, it’s a federally-list endangered species with only a few plants remaining in the wild. In other words? You ought to feel blessed if you happen upon one.
Offering what is arguably the most wonderful scent in Hawaii, pikake went down in Hawaiian history as the favorite flower of its famed “Crown” princess, Ka‘iulani—heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy. Meaning peacock in Hawaiian, pikake—which is also known as Indian and Arabian Jasmine and is part of the olive family—produces such a magnificent aroma, it’s one of the top-selling perfumes to come out of Hawaii. With four distinct flower varieties throughout the islands, it appears in lei and gardens, lacing many romantic nights with its irresistible fragrance.
While awapuhi grows in abundance throughout the islands—with those pink and red crowns a large part of resort grounds—blue ginger, or Dichorisandra thyrsiflora (which one can see at the Maui Tropical Plantation among many other varieties of beautiful vegetation), is a rarer encounter. Native to Brazil, and bearing similarities to spiderworts, its color—somewhere between sapphire and violet—astounds, rendering it noticeable, if not show-offy, even in the most colorful of gardens.
Hawaii is home to more than birds and plants found nowhere else on Earth: It’s also home to seven types of hibiscus that are endemic to the islands—but what most visitors and locals see are Chinese hibiscus and their hybrids. Nevertheless, the jazzy, vivid flower, in hues ranging from bright pink to white, has come to symbolize Hawaii, with the yellow hibiscus, also known as pua alo alo, serving as the state’s flower. A fixture throughout the islands, hibiscus bloom daily but say aloha ‘oe to their petals almost as quickly—most hibiscus seldom last most beyond sunset.
Backyard staple, resort landscaping basic, beach ornamental—plumeria trees are as ubiquitous in Hawaii as palms, dazzling eyes with their range of colors (from scarlet red to white with a buttery-yellow center)—and dazzling noses with their sweet, perfumed scent. Brought to the islands by a German botanist in 1860, they’re the bloom you pin behind your ear on your way out to dinner, and, if you’re kama’aina, the flower you reach for when it’s time to make lei for a birthday, baby’s first, or graduation. Stroll along coastal walks—such as the Wailea Boardwalk on Maui—and chances are you’ll find a plumeria lei drying in the sun on rocks near the water. Consider it a misguided interpretation of a tradition that began in WWII, when sailors departing Oahu threw their plumeria lei into the Pacific (a lei floating to shore assured their return; a lei floating back toward their ship suggested they wouldn’t). Should you receive a plumeria lei upon visiting Hawaii, ensure it isn’t just tossed in the trash: local ritual says the lei should be given back to Earth, hung from a tree, buried, or burned.
‘Uki ‘Uki (Hawaiian Lily)
Mere groundcover the ‘uki ‘uki—or Hawaiian Lily—is not. Generating spears of white flowers and buds of bluish-purple fruit year-round, Dianella sandwicensis is often strung into lei and used as a dye in kapa cloth. (Native Hawaiians also used it for cordage and thatch houses.) Endemic to the islands, ‘uki ‘uki adapts well to diverse environments, meaning it’s just as likely to flourish in arid climes as it is lush rainforests.
With their dark green leaves and compelling, half-broken white blooms, naupaka is seen from sea to sky. Or, in less poetic terms, it flourishes on both beaches and mountains. Native to Hawaii, and presenting an unmistakably pleasing scent (especially given its diminutive size), naupaka, like many Hawaiian flowers, has a myth behind it: According to legend, a princess named Naupaka fell madly in love with a plebe who she was banned from marrying. When a priest Hawaii’s Romeo and Juliet counseled said there was nothing he could do for them, a devastated Naupaka tore the white flower from her hair and ripped it in half. She gave one half of the flower to her lover and insisted he return to the beach; she, on the other hand, would stay in the mountains. Today, the “female” naupaka—which grows in the upper reaches of the islands—has a lovelier, more palpable scent than its robust “male” version on the beach. Whatever you may believe, you won’t be able to question its ability to tantalize—much like all of Hawaii.