In a language known for its long, multisyllabic words, in a place with such a diverse array of flowers, it is ironic that in Hawai'i, the word for flower has only three letters: pua. Because just about anything will grow in the state's rich, volcanic soil, many of the flowers that we think of as Hawai'ian are actually not native. There are, however, many non-native flowers that evoke thoughts of Hawai'i at the mere mention of their names.
A native of Mexico, Central and South America, the plumeria, aside from the hibiscus, is the flower most closely associated with Hawai'i. If you have ever been the recipient of a lei, made in Hawai'i, it was most likely made out of plumerias. Sweet-smelling white and yellow, or pink flowers grow on easy-to-care-for trees, all over the state. The flowers, when freshly picked, leak a milky sap that is sometimes irritating to the skin, so home lei-makers will generally float the flowers in a bowl of water before stringing them. If you are looking to grow this plant on the mainland, its common name is frangipani and it is hardy to USDA Zones 10b and 11.
The fragrant gardenia blooms on a perennial shrub that is a close relative to the coffee tree. Native to Asia, Australia and Africa, the Hawai'ian gardenia (Gardenia brighamii H. Mann), or na'u (nah-oo), is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Threats to the plant include increased development, competition with invasive alien plants and wildlife. There are ongoing conservation measures in the state to preserve the few remaining na'u growing in the wild.
Ma'o Hau Hele
No discussion of Hawai'ian flowers would be complete without the inclusion of the state's official flower, the Ma'o hau hele (mah o hah oo hay lay). This is the hibiscus that most tourists associate with Hawai'i. It blooms on an 8-foot-tall shrub in spring and early summer in a striking shade of yellow. In Hawai'i, the shrub is usually used as a border and you will find them at many of the resorts. Varieties of this hibiscus are native to all of the Hawai'ian islands.
The lehua flower, native to Hawai'i, plays an important role in Hawai'ian culture. There are numerous legends about the '--hi'a lehua (oh-he ah lay-who-ah), said to be one that Laka, goddess of the hula, held sacred. The flower is similar to the bottlebrush in color and texture, although shaped more like a pom-pom. The Ohi'a tree is so hardy that, according to geologists at the Hawai'ian Volcano Observatory, the tree will close its pores during a volcanic eruption to avoid being harmed by the noxious fumes.