Flower Identification in Hawaii


The Hawaiian Islands are known throughout the world for the year-round abundance of flowers found there. Hawaii's warm climate, moderated by moisture-laden trade winds, is ideal for growing flowering plants from tropical regions around the globe. Most flowering plants found in urban and residential landscapes are imported ornamental plants and can be easily identified by shape, color and even fragrance.


Native Hawaiians have used flowers for adornment, gifts and ritual offerings since ancient times. Flowers are still used by the people of Hawaii to honor friends, family, sweethearts or distinguished guests on all sorts of occasions. Flowers from plants brought after Western contact often were sweet reminders of immigrants' distant homelands. As Hawaii became a popular tourist destination, showy flowered plants from all over the globe were introduced into the landscape. Since the 1950s, orchids, anthuriums and proteas have become commercially important in Hawaii's cut flower industry and have also become part of the landscape.


Many flowers associated with Hawaii, like Chinese hibiscus, bird of paradise, bougainvillea and plumeria, were actually brought from other places. These showy, imported ornamentals were first planted around resorts during the post-World War II tourism boom to evoke a tropical look. Featured prominently in early films and travel posters, these exotic flowers came to represent Hawaii to the rest of the world, but they are not Hawaiian natives.

The Language of Lei

Traditionally, each kind of flower held a specific meaning, so the lei became a kind of floral poem or message to the recipient. Certain flowers came to represent regions or even whole islands, and were worn by travelers to identify their homelands. Some lei are quite labor intensive, such as the native yellow ilima flower lei, which requires over 700 blossoms to complete. These lei were traditionally presented only to those of high rank. Many introduced flowers became favorites of lei makers and were also assigned special meanings. For example, Pikake, or Arabian jasmine, is associated with romance, and is often worn by brides.


One of the most ubiquitous flowers seen in Hawaii is the distinctive blossom of the plumeria tree. These highly fragrant flowers have five rounded petals and occur in white, yellow, pink, orange and red. Plumeria trees can be seen nearly everywhere in the islands, often lining streets and hotel walkways. The huge, bell-shaped flowers of angel's trumpet are equally common sights. This small tree produces masses of pendant, bewitchingly scented white, pink or peach flowers. Many species of ornamental ginger are grown in Hawaii for their brightly colored, waxy flowers, including the plume-flowered red ginger and the 6-foot-tall oddity, torch ginger.


Many lovely flowers found in Hawaii, including angel's trumpet, oleander and be-still tree, can be toxic if eaten by children or pets. Some flowers, such as the crown flower, contain toxic sap that can severely burn the skin or eyes. Another danger associated with flowers in Hawaii is the risk of transporting invasive species. Some plants, like the brilliant purple--flowered glory bush, and the showy pinkflowered banana polka vine, have become serious threats to Hawaii's native ecosystems. Use care not to spread these pests to other locations.

Keywords: Hawaii, flower identification, plumeria

About this Author

Malia Marin is a landscape designer and freelance writer, specializing in sustainable design, native landscapes and environmental education. She holds a Masters in landscape architecture, and her professional experience includes designing parks, trails and residential landscapes. Marin has written numerous articles, over the past ten years, about landscape design for local newspapers.