Hundreds of species of tropical flowers are grown in Hawaii, each with at least two or three common or botanical names. Many related plants produce flowers in a dizzying array of colors and shapes, adding to the delightful confusion. Understanding which plants are related can make it easier to learn the names of some common Hawaiian tropical flowers.
Torch ginger (Etlingera eliator), native to the island of Mauritius, can reach heights up to 20 feet. This ginger is named for its large, clear pink, torch-shaped flowers, which turn deep red as they mature. Torch ginger is easily grown in frost-free areas with rich, moist soil. It requires partial shade and shelter from strong winds.
Kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) is native to the Himalayas and was introduced to Hawaii in the 1940s. It produces tall, cylindrical flower heads composed of many fragrant, yellow flowers with red stamens. This ginger is so named because it resembles traditional kahilis, yellow cylinders made from bird feathers, which were carried aloft on poles to signify royalty. Kahili ginger requires partial shade and ample water. It can be grown from rhizomes planted in large pots, or outdoors in frost-free locations. This plant is an extremely invasive pest in Hawaii and should never be cultivated in the state.
Sexy Pink (Heliconia chartacea) is a pendant heliconia with large overlapping pink and green bracts. This stunning cultivar was hybridized and named in the 1980s by one of Maui’s foremost growers, Ali’i Chang. It can be grown most places where bananas grow well. It thrives in rich soil with constant moisture, in full to partial sun.
The hanging lobster claw heliconia (H. rostrata ) is a striking flower with hanging, flattened, bright red bracts edged with yellow and light green. Its botanical name, rostrata, means “beaked”, and refers to the unusual beak or claw shaped bracts. Hanging lobster claws grow up to ten feet high and require a sheltered location with moist soil in full to partial sun.
The plumeria known as “common yellow” (Plumeria rubra) was the first variety brought to Hawaii, by botanist William Hillebrand in 1860. This pure yellow plumeria, native to Mexico and Guatemala, was commonly planted near cemeteries and was called “make man”, which means “dead man” in Hawaiian.
Pua melia, (P. rubra), a descendant of “common yellow”, is white with a yellow throat. This variety is extremely fragrant and is highly sought by lei makers.
All plumerias have similar cultural requirements including, full sun and moist, well drained soil. They can be grown outdoors in frost-free places and succeed in pots as long as they receive enough light and are kept dry over the winter.