Hawaii is far away from just about everywhere on the U.S. mainland and crazy-expensive. Yet it’s enormously popular. Why? It’s the warm sunny weather, the lush landscapes, and the relaxing escape that comes with vacations. But most of all, for me, it’s the heavenly flowers.
Interestingly enough, Hawaii had very few endemic plants before Polynesians settled the islands. They brought plants native to nearby areas where they lived like coconut palms, taro, mountain apple trees, etc. Later, settlers brought more decorative plants. Those plants, often native to South America, South Africa or Malaysia, happily thrived in the gentle conditions of Hawaii.
Hawaii Flowers: Bold Colors, Unusual Forms
Here are seven heavenly flowers common to the islands but uniquely stunning in their ability to enchant me. Every time I encounter them, I have to gawk. They’re not necessarily native but classic to Hawaiian culture.
The first plant you may encounter in Hawaii is plumeria. If a tour guide or hotel clerk puts a lei around your neck, you’re wearing this classic Hawaiian flower. The white one is highly fragrant. I could take in its sweet scent for hours. They’re often grown on hotel grounds so that will give you an excuse to stroll, especially at night when the scent is stronger. The tree has thick, uniformly divided branches that make for a tidy architectural specimen. Here’s a pink variety I photographed on the Big Island.
Another noticeable plant is Bougainvillea. You may see this native of South America on your drive from the airport to your hotel. It’s a Zone 9 vine or shrub that brightens with its deep magenta, red, orange, yellow, or white blooms. One interesting fact about Bougainvillea is that it’s not the actual flowers that are so colorful, it’s the surrounding bracts. Here’s a photo of two bougainvilleas climbing over the roof of a bookstore on Maui.
This plant’s name comes from an actual bird with long orange feathers. Strelitzia reginae stands as a proud sculpture with its top “plumage” and “beak.” It’s unusual in that it has three orange petals and three blue petals that emerge from one bud. In Hawaiian, the Bird-of-Paradise plant means “Little Globe,” not sure why. You might see it while hiking on the rainy sides of islands as it likes both water and sun. Georgia O’Keefe painted, among other tropical plants, a beautiful white bird-of-paradise. The painting’s tone is dreamy and cold.
Hibiscus is Hawaii’s state flower. You’ll mainly come across it in restaurant gardens or on home properties. They don’t grow much in the wild. There are several hundred species of hibiscus, mainly in red, yellow, magenta (top photo), white or mixed colors. This gorgeous lady I found at Hula Daddy Kona Coffee on the Big Island. I’m pretty sure the cultivar is Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Sex on the Beach.’ Isn’t it an amazing blending of hot hues? How many colors can you count in there? Yellow, orange, pink, magenta, burgundy…
Orchids are grown in any cultivated area of Hawaii. Hundreds decorate the landscape but this purely yellow one in a front yard near Kona drew me in. It’s a yellow Dendrobium. While there are only three species of orchid native to Hawaii (Anoectochilus sandvicensis,Liparis hawaiensis, and Platanthera holochila), many home gardeners grow them for ornamental purposes. You’ll see orchids thriving in hotel gardens or borders outside businesses. Anyway, I was taken by this Dendrobium with its buttery cups and graceful cascade of flowers, so calm and unsuspecting in the way it glowed under a nearby tree, that I had to snap a photo.
Otherworldly Jade Vine
Now, onto the weirdest blooms you won’t see grown much in the U.S. The jade vine is a rainforest plant native to the Phillipines that naturally grows up trees and through the forest’s canopy. I’ve seen it grown at just about every botanical garden I’ve visited in Hawaii (and I’ve been to most). How amazing is that cool, minty blue color? It comes from just the right ratio of glucoside chemicals. Gawd, I love it. It’s so weird and wonderful.
Also, I’m fascinated by plants that hang down at eye level because they’re so intimidating. They’re literally in your face. Interestingly, bats pollinate Strongylodon macrobotrys by hanging upside down to drink its nectar.
Ohia Lehua Amidst the Lava
The Ohia Lehua shrubs pop through areas of volcanic rock. This myrtle relative (Metrosideros polymorpha) sports beautiful brushy flowers in bold red colors. The flowers are actually made up of a tight bouquet of stamens, giving it that spiky quality. You often see these shrubs while hiking at higher elevations. For instance, here’s a shot I took while in the Kīlauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s amazing to walk through a dead volcano’s crater. You understand first-hand how massive and powerful they are. And how we humans are so tiny and lucky to be alive.