Montana may be the Big Sky state, Texas may be home of the 10-gallon hat, and Alaska may dwarf the other 49 states in terms of size, but if you’re looking for big plants, look to Hawaii.
Our 50th state, with its sunshine, humidity, and fertile volcanic soils, is a botanist’s paradise. The size, range, and sheer lushness of the Aloha State’s tropical foliage impress even those who are innocent of science and gardening.
Salad From the Sky
Everything that says “paradise” on a fruit plate grows in the Hawaiian Islands, and grows well. Guavas, papayas, and mangoes hang heavy on their respective trees, both tended and untended. Exotic star fruit and lychee grow profusely. Passion fruit, known locally as lilikoi, was introduced from its native Amazon habitat over a century ago and has become a Hawaiian favorite. Of course, bananas and pineapples grow easily and everywhere. As if this fruit cornucopia were not sweet enough, garnish it all with sugar from the local sugar cane or pungent slices of Hawaiian ginger.
Sally O’Neal Coates
Pineapple is both a symbol of Hawaii itself and a universal symbol of hospitality. Low, sword-edged bushes can be seen in cultivated rows alongside Maui’s roadways. But pick yours from the local Farmer’s Market; fines for freelance pineapple picking are steep.
Sugarcane is another cultivated crop still very much in evidence around the island. While the number of processors has dwindled in recent years, the fields are still present and easy to spot, the tall, grass- or bamboo-like stalks growing to the approximate height of mature corn.
Hawaii’s palm trees yield more than beautiful photographs; both dates and coconuts are harvested from species of palm.
Remember what I said about BIG plants? On my recent trip to Maui, I saw avocadoes the size of cantaloupes hanging thick and ripe on gnarled old trees. (No one mentioned the fines for filching those; I couldn’t help myself…) On the other end of the spectrum, golf-ball-sized wild lychee fruits (nuts?) littered a hiking trail I tramped on Maui’s north shore.
Beyond Lei Greetings
The most exotic flowers you will ever request in an American floral arrangement can be seen throughout Hawaii. Beaky bird of paradise, waxy lipstick-red anthurium (also available in white, pink, green, and two-tone), and flashy, torchlike ginger are among the best known. The state flower, yellow hibiscus (shown here in author’s hair), is so common as to appear in roadside rights of way and parking lot shrubbery. Pink and white are also common hibiscus colors, with more unusual varieties ranging from orange to purple to multi-hued.
Author’s husband plays tourist with ubiquitous pineapple plant.
The protea is a fascinating flower, or, more correctly, many flowers. There are over a thousand known species, with many variations. It is perhaps inelegant to say that protea somewhat resemble a thistle, with fuzzy or prickly centers surrounded by brightly colored “petals,” actually bracts. Some are the size of soccer balls.
Many varieties of orchids, including dendrobiums, cymbidiums, oncidiums, cattleyas, vandas, and phalaenopsis, are grown in the Hawaiian Islands.
But let’s not forget about those lei greetings. The classic and most fragrant, if fragile, bloom used for leis is the plumeria blossom. Properly nurtured and cultivated for this use, plumeria flowers come in a wide variety of colors from white to pinks and oranges to reds. More prosaically, plumeria blossoms (most often white ones) can be seen growing on their eerie, nearly leafless trees on suburban lawns, as common as oak or maple trees in the continental U.S.
And back to this business of size. I’m not just talking bird of paradise; I’m talking six-foot, eight-foot bird of paradise. I’m talking mother-in-law’s tongue plants (a.k.a. snake plant, a.k.a., Sansevieria) the size of Volkswagen Beetles. I’m talking towering bromeliads with litters of “pups,” looking like something from Jurassic Park. Come to think of it, is it any wonder Maui is famous in certain circles for that wacky weed known as “Maui Wowie?”
Sally O’Neal Coates is a travel and outdoor writer based in Washington State.