Where Even The Ordinary Is Exotic: Common Flora Of The Big Island

In my recent wanderings on the Big Island of Hawaii, I was continually impressed with the profusion of color provided by the many “common” (but not so common to me!) flowers and flowering shrubs and trees of the island.

The state flower of Hawaii, the colorful Hibiscus is a part of the landscape on all of the major islands. Tuck one of these saucer-sized blossoms behind your ear, and you’re an instant “hula girl.”

Hibiscus flowers are as ubiquitous as dandelions.

There are over 200 species of Hibiscus, a flowering shrub with blooms that come in all shades of pink and red as well as orange, purple, yellow, and white. The Hibiscus genus includes both annual and perennial plants, and trees as well as shrubs. Botanically, they are related to such common crops as cotton, cacao and okra. Also known as “rosemallow,” the edible plants are used in a variety of herbal teas and also have medicinal properties.

The waxy little flowers of the plumeria plant are frequently used in the flower-garland leis that greet new arrivals to the islands. The five-petaled flowers come in a wide range of single, double, and even triple colors (reds, pinks, purple, yellow, white), and have a pleasant fragrance many find superior to the more strongly scented lei choice, tuberose. Plumeria trees can be seen all over the Big Island. Some have glossy dark-green leaves while others are almost leafless.

The “lei flower”: Plumeria.

A relatively modern Hawaiian tradition involves selective placement of a plumeria flower over a woman’s ear — placement over the right ear means the wearer is “available,” while placement over the left ear means she is “taken.”

Originally from South America, bougainvilla has become a widely cultivated plant in all tropical and semi-tropical regions. In Hawaii, they are everywhere. So numerous and so lush are the bushes, they are often used as hedges, the lush green foliage liberally interspersed with red, purple, orange, yellow, white, or pink flowers. As a hedge, they have the additional protective benefit of being dense and thorny, therefore rather impenetrable. Bougainvilla thrive on the warm temperatures, bright sunlight, and relative humidity of the island.

Bougainvilla: so common they’re pruned into hedges.

Ohia Tree &
Lehua Blossoms

One of the most common trees on the Big Island is the Ohia Lehua. This strikingly beautiful hardwood tree sports a bristly blossom known as a Lehua blossom or Lehua flower. While the hibiscus, specifically the yellow Hibiscus, is the overall Hawaii state flower, the Lehua blossom is the official flower of the Big Island. According to legend, picking a Lehua blossom will cause rain, due to a complicated curse involving the Volcano Goddess Pele. I wouldn’t take my chances.

Lehua blossom: The Big Island’s official flower.

While the blood-red, heart-shaped Anthurium is closely associated with Hawaii and indeed can be seen in profusion at any floral or farmer’s market on the island, it is an introduced plant. Like Bougainvilla, it is native to South America, but may have been introduced to Hawaii as early as 1889. By the second half of the 20th Century, the flower, which also comes in white, green, pink, and purple, was heavily cultivated and marketed as “Hawaiian.”

Bird Of Paradise
Another non-native but now-common flower is the Bird of Paradise. Native to South Africa, it can be found today in both the “regular” and “giant” size throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The flowers are predominately orange, but with a complex range of colors including red, yellow, and indigo all coexisting on a single plant. The regular size is suitable for, and frequently seen in, flower arrangements, where it is both sturdy and exotic. The giant variety is a favorite landscape plant, growing over 10 feet tall.

Sally O’Neal writes a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com. She visited The Big Island of Hawaii in April 2011.

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