Hawaii is a subtropical region with year-round sunshine and soil infused with volcanic ash. It is also isolated, so many of its endemic flora and fauna are the result of millions of years of isolated evolution following slow and infrequent colonization (typically by wind, water, or bird/insect life).
In layman’s terms, it means that Hawaii is in a unique position and, historically, has given birth to some amazingly beautiful plants not seen anywhere else. Of course, these days it’s a US state and attracts millions of tourists and countless trade ships and planes, so it’s not isolated anymore, but you can still find some beautifully unique species on the island and it’s those that we will look at here.
Pua melia or “plumeria” is a hugely important flower in Hawaiian culture but it’s not actually native to the islands. It was introduced to Hawaii in the middle of the 19th century, and it has flourished there ever since, thriving in the island’s rich soil and glorious sunshine.
The flowers come in a variety of colors (including yellow and red) and they produce a beautiful scent.
What Does The Plumeria Symbolize In Hawaiian?
Plumeria flowers are used to make leis (more on those below) and they symbolize, love, birth, and hope. Traditionally, they have also been used to indicate a woman’s status. If the flower is worn behind the left ear, she’s in a relationship; if it’s worn behind the right, she is open to meeting new partners.
It’s the Hawaiian equivalent of an engagement/wedding ring or a Facebook status. It’s also tailormade for some sitcom-level misunderstandings involving unwitting tourists.
Bird of Paradise
The bird of paradise plant is native to South Africa and is so-named because the flowers look like little birds in flight. These plants are popular throughout the Hawaiian islands where they seem to thrive in the hot climate. They are also abundant on Maui.
Some species of hibiscus are native to the Hawaiian Islands and the yellow hibiscus is actually the state flower. Known as ma’o hau hele in Hawaiian, the yellow hibiscus or Hibiscus brackenridgei doesn’t possess the sweet and fragrant scents of plumeria and is a little disappointing in that department. However, it’s an attractive and bushy shrub that grows throughout the islands and is also used in landscaping.
Hibiscus is also commonly made into teas and used as a flavoring. As a tea, it has a slightly sweet flavor and produces a strong color. It’s also packed with vitamin C and antioxidants.
The tuberose is native to Mexico but was introduced to Hawaii for the purpose of making leis. It produces small and neat flowers that have a strong and long-lasting scent, making them perfect for Hawaiian leis.
A lei is a wreath of flowers worn around the neck. It is a symbol of friendship and celebration and it is one that you will see throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
In many ways, leis are the physical embodiment of the aloha spirit, and they are usually the first thing that tourists experience and the last thing they remember.
What Are Hawaiian Leis Made Of?
Leis are made of flowers that are strung together. They can also be made of vines and leaves, but most leis choose flowers that are vibrant and fragrant, including plumeria flowers and tuberose flowers.
What Do Different Hawaiian Leis Mean?
The lei that you receive can be dictated by the type of celebration, the resources available on the island, or the significance of the exchange. Some popular types of lei include:
- Purple Orchid Leis: These are vibrant leis that hold up well and are suitable for most occasions. They have strong colors but no scent and they are often given to guests upon arrival. You’ll find them at airports.
- Maile Leis: These traditional leis are given during important ceremonies, such as weddings.
- Tuberose Leis: A popular choice for most occasions, these leis are prized for their scent.
How Do You Make A Hawaiian Plumeria Lei?
There are several different ways to make a Hawaiian lei. Some methods use a base material like bark or leaves, braiding them together and then slipping the flowers into the braids. Others are made by tying the stems of the flowers into knots and then looping another flower through the knot.