23 Hawaiian Flowers That Define the Tropical Paradise

After a recent visit, I can confidently say that my favorite thing about Hawai’i is the sheer number of plants! Not only are the islands teeming with greenery year-round, but Hawai’i’s unique climate hosts many species you’ll rarely find growing anywhere else in the world.

Sprawling banyan trees and mile-high palms are easy to come by. If you take a closer look, however, you’ll also discover dozens of fascinating flowers dotting the islands of Hawaiʻi. Some of these flowers exist only in this one location.

In this article, you’ll learn about some of the most common Hawaiian flowers — both native and introduced — and the importance they have to this tropical paradise.

Types of Hawaiian Flowers

When discussing Hawaiian flowers, I think one of the most important distinctions to be made is whether a plant is native to the islands or not. Hawaiʻi is geographically secluded, but there have been a lot of changes to the local landscapes as a result of both Polynesian and European settlement.

Though natives are generally best for ecological health, several non-native plants hold significance in Hawaiian culture today. Overlooking these plants would mean ignoring a big part of what makes Hawaiʻi unique in terms of its people, flora, and cultural history.

Non-Native

These plants were brought to the islands at one point or another by humans. Even Hawaiian mainstays like coconut palms and pineapples were introduced to the islands by people, albeit several thousand years ago.

Introduced species aren’t always brought to new areas on purpose. It’s actually very common for plants to make their way to far corners of the globe as stowaways. Others are cultivated as ornamentals or for food and may escape into the wild if the conditions are right.

Native

Native plants are those that naturally occur in a given area without any human intervention. These plants usually play very important ecological roles since they’ve evolved right alongside other native plants and animals within the ecosystem.

For further clarity, native species can be classified as either indigenous or endemic. These classifications are particularly important when covering a biodiversity hotspot like Hawaiʻi.

Indigenous

An indigenous plant or animal is one that is native to one or more general areas. For example, wolves are indigenous to Eurasia and North America. Though genetic differences have emerged over time, today’s wolf populations got where they are without any human involvement.

Endemic

An endemic species, on the other hand, is one that is only native to a single location. For example, the bald eagle is endemic to North America. You won’t find it (naturally) living anywhere outside of Canada, the US, or Mexico.

While the bald eagle has a fairly large territory, this isn’t the case for many endemic animals and plants. (E.g., several endemic Hawaiian plants only grow on one or two islands.) These species are usually at high risk of endangerment or extinction because their native habitats are so limited.

23 Bright and Tropical Hawaiian Flowers

From fragrant plumerias to fruit-bearing bromeliads, Hawaiʻi has no shortage of culturally and economically important plants. A few of these flowers might even be worth growing in more temperate climates (though you’ll probably need to keep them indoors).

1. Plumeria

Plumeria

Frangipani spp.

  • Status: Introduced

Plumeria is a floral emblem of Hawaiian paradise, prized for its succulent blooms and intoxicating fragrance. The flowers are often used to make traditional leis. Standard blossom colors include white, yellow, pink, and red. 

These plants are robust shrubs or small trees with thick stems and leathery leaves. Despite only being introduced to the islands in the mid-19th century, plumeria flourish in the volcanic soil and easily withstand the ocean’s salt spray.

2. Anthurium

Anthurium

Anthurium spp.

  • Status: Introduced

Anthurium is known for its glossy, heart-shaped leaves and vibrant flowers. The most striking variety has a red spathe, but white and pink versions are also quite common. Other popular names include flamingo flower and laceleaf.

This plant is native to parts of North and South America, as well as some of the Caribbean Islands. Since its introduction, it has acclimatized well to Hawaii’s tropical climate and is now extremely commonplace in landscapes. In cooler climates, anthurium is a very popular houseplant.

3. Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise

Strelitzia reginae

  • Status: Introduced

Bird of Paradise is another Hawaiian stalwart, named for its interesting flowers that resemble colorful birds in flight. This plant is originally native to South Africa but fares quite well in Hawaiʻi’s island climate.

In Hawaiʻi, this plant is found in countless landscapes and outdoor containers. Outside of the tropics, the bird of paradise is typically grown indoors or as a summer annual. It’s surprisingly resilient and, with proper care, may bloom year-round.

4. Nāʻū (Hawaiian Gardenia)

Nāʻū

Gardenia brighamii

  • Status: Endemic

The Hawaiian gardenia, or ‘Nanu’, is an endemic shrub or tree highly prized for its fragrant white flowers. This is one of the plants most commonly used in lei-making. Its glossy, evergreen foliage provides interest even when the flowers aren’t in bloom. 

While it once thrived in Hawaiʻi’s lowland forests, this native plant is now classified as endangered due to habitat loss. Only a handful of wild plants are left in the state. Strong conservation efforts are in place to preserve the Hawaiian gardenia, but only time will tell if these efforts are successful.

5. Pikake (Arabian Jasmine)

Pikake

Jasminum sambac

  • Status: Introduced 

Arabian Jasmine is an enchanting shrub or vine with evergreen foliage and intensely aromatic flowers. Although native to the Himalayas, it is widespread throughout Hawaiʻi as a landscape ornamental (and is frequently used in leis). 

Part of Arabian jasmine’s appeal is that it’s easy to cultivate and quite tough, flourishing in a range of light and soil conditions. It can be trained to cover walls or fences for added privacy and visual appeal.

6. ʻUki ʻUki

Uki ʻUki

Dianella sandwicensis

  • Status: Indigenous

Sometimes known simply as a Hawaiian lily, this plant is indigenous to much of Hawaiʻi as well as a few other Pacific Islands. Other plants within the Dianella genus are commonly called flax lilies.

It is a hardy, low-maintenance perennial with charming, star-shaped flowers and bright blue berries. The pigmented berries were historically used in making dye.

ʻUki ʻuki is an excellent choice for the native gardener looking to expand their home landscape without taking on more hands-on work. It is very adaptable and can be found growing in a wide range of Hawaiian habitats.

7. Pua Kala (Beach Poppy)

Pua Kala

Argemone glauca

  • Status: Endemic

Pua kala is the only poppy species native to Hawaiʻi, where it is found growing far and wide across the islands. It is sometimes mistaken for a weed but is actually a lovely wildflower for the tropical climate.

According to the Waikōloa Dry Forest Initiative, pua kala is an excellent hedge plant because it deters cattle and other grazing animals. It’s also perfect for water-conscious landscapes due to its love of dry growing conditions.

Unlike some of its relatives, pua kala does not contain opioid compounds. However, its sap has been used in traditional medicine for a variety of purposes.

8. Naupaka

Naupaka

Scaevola spp.

  • Status: Indigenous

Naupaka is a hardy shrub that prefers sandy environments such as those found along Hawaiian coastlines. It is sometimes called beach cabbage or sea lettuce.

This evergreen shrub has thick, dark green leaves that stand out against the white sand. You can easily ID naupaka by looking at the white flowers, which appear to be ‘missing’ half of their petals.

Naupaka has a mounded growth habit that tends to accumulate sand blowing in the wind. It’s common for the sand collected by naupaka roots to eventually form dunes.

9. Maʻo Hau Hele (Brackenridge’s Rosemallow)

Maʻo Hau Hele

Hibiscus brackenridgei

  • Status: Endemic

This native hibiscus is the state flower of Hawaiʻi. Individual shrubs can grow up to 30 feet tall, and the bright yellow blossoms measure 4 to 6 inches across. Some flowers have distinct red centers.

Maʻo hau hele is commonly found in scrubby lowland areas of Hawaiʻi. There are several recognized subspecies scattered across the eight main islands, each with its own subtle genetic differences.

Due to human development and the introduction of non-native species, wild populations have dwindled. You can still find cultivated maʻo hau hele growing in a number of Hawaiian landscapes and botanical gardens.

10. Hāhā

Hāhā

Cyanea spp.

  • Status: Endemic

Hāhā refers to a genus of plants in the bellflower family, all of which are endemic to Hawaiʻi. This genus belongs to a larger group of plants called Hawaiian lobelias, which contains over 125 ancestrally related species exclusively found on the archipelago.

Hāhā plants can grow over 6 feet tall and are covered in small prickles. It’s a bit of a mystery why they evolved to have a thorny defence mechanism since few native animals would have fed on these plants.

The flowers of hāhā are quite interesting. They range from white to various shades of purple, and the tubular blooms gradually unfurl and open up to pollinators.

11. Heliconia

Heliconia

Heliconia spp.

  • Status: Introduced

While Heliconia plants are widespread across much of modern Hawaiʻi, the most common varieties (native to the Caribbean) were only introduced in the 1950s. 

Sometimes mistaken for a type of flowering ginger or bird of paradise, common Heliconia is also known by the moniker ‘lobster claw’. I’m partial to the ‘hanging lobster claw’, or H. rostrata.

There are almost 200 species of Heliconia in the world. Most are native to the American tropics. According to the Hawaiʻi Tropical Bioreserve & Garden, a few species are also indigenous to the Pacific Islands west of Hawaiʻi.

Some species of Heliconia spread uncontrollably via underground rhizomes. To prevent this, it’s best to select ‘clumping’ varieties that are well-behaved.

12. ʻŌhiʻa Lehua

ʻŌhiʻa Lehua

Metrosideros polymorpha

  • Status: Endemic

This tree accounts for the majority of native Hawaiian forests on the six biggest islands. There’s even a day each year dedicated to celebrating the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree, April 25. According to Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, ʻōhiʻa lehua trees readily take over areas with recent lava flow activity.

ʻŌhiʻa lehua flowers are largely just dense clusters of colorful stamens. Most trees boast pink, red, or yellow blooms. White varieties exist but are relatively rare.

Though this Hawaiian tree is able to withstand near-volcanic environments, it has recently fallen victim to a nasty disease called Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD). Care must be taken not to accidentally spread this fungal infection from tree to tree.

13. Poʻola nui (Cosmos flower Beggarticks)

Poʻola nui

Bidens cosmoides

  • Status: Endemic

A member of the sunflower family, poʻola nui is an endemic Hawaiian shrub with an incredibly small range. It is exclusively found in the semi-moist forests of Kauaʻi at elevations between 2,000 and 3,000 feet above sea level. 

Poʻola nui flowers are typically yellow or orange and look like downturned daisies. The stamens are very prominent. In the wild, poʻola Nui plants are predominantly pollinated by birds. 

There are several other Bidens species found throughout Hawaiʻi, but this one stands out due to its large size and relative rarity in the wild. 

14. Lilikoʻi (Passion Fruit)

Lilikoʻi

Passiflora edulis

  • Status: Introduced

You can’t travel far in Hawaiʻi without running into some type of passion fruit confection. But this ubiquitous Hawaiian fruit is actually native to Brazil and made its way to the islands via a brief stopover in Australia.

Lilikoʻi is an evergreen vine with odd-looking flowers. The species most commonly grown in Hawaiʻi bears white, yellow, or purple flowers. 

There are two common subspecies of lilikoʻi grown throughout Hawaiʻi, categorized by the color of the fruit. The purple passion fruit (P. edulis Sims) is suited to subtropical climates. Meanwhile, the yellow passion fruit (P. edulis var. flavicarpa Degener) thrives in tropical areas and is, therefore, more prevalent on the islands.

15. Pitaya (Dragon Fruit)

Pitaya

Hylocereus undatus

  • Status: Introduced

If you come across a tangled hedge of thin, branching cacti while exploring the Hawaiian islands, there’s a very good chance you’ve found some dragon fruit! This tropical fruit was introduced from Central and South America and is now quite common in drier parts of Hawaiʻi.

Dragon fruit flowers are unique in that they bloom at night. Nocturnal pollinators like bats and moths frequently visit the flowers. By the way, the large blossoms are gorgeous but very easy to miss since they only stay open for about 24 hours.

To ensure successful dragon fruit growth stages, ideally you will want to be in USDA Zones 10 to 12.

16. Koʻoloaʻula

Koʻoloaʻula

Abutilon menziesii

  • Status: Endemic

Koʻoloaʻula is a member of the mallow family endemic to just four Hawaiian islands. It is a sprawling shrub with hibiscus-like flowers that are usually red but come in a wide range of colors. The vibrant blooms are often hidden beneath the large, silvery leaves.

Though critically endangered in the wild, koʻoloaʻula is relatively common in botanical gardens thanks to dedicated conservation efforts. The natural population of koʻoloaʻula is estimated to contain fewer than 500 plants.

These shrubs are extremely tolerant of hot, dry growing conditions. Koʻoloaʻula is a wonderful native, drought-tolerant flower for the home landscape.

17. Torch Ginger

Torch Ginger

Etlingera elatior

  • Status: Introduced

It’s easy to mistake torch ginger for a native Hawaiian plant due to its sheer prevalence throughout the islands. This towering flower was instead brought to the region from its original habitat of Southeast Asia. 

While torch ginger is incredibly common in both landscapes and outdoor containers, you might find thickets of plants growing in the wild. Torch ginger is capable of being mildly invasive in wet parts of Hawaiʻi.

The traditional torch ginger flower is flaming red. However, both pink and white varieties are also available. These flowers are also popularly used in cut arrangements.

18. Kāhili Ginger

Kāhili Ginger

Hedychium gardnerianum

  • Status: Introduced

Also known as Himalayan ginger, this species is the most problematic variety of ginger cultivated in Hawaiʻi. It readily naturalizes in wild areas using underground rhizomes, forming dense colonies that choke out vulnerable native plant life.

Despite these downfalls, kāhili ginger is still sometimes grown as an ornamental. It stands out from other types of ginger with its yellow flower spikes accented by long, red stamens.

Kāhili ginger may be grown as a seasonal annual in more temperate climates, where there’s no risk of it escaping cultivation. Avoid growing this plant if you live in Hawaiʻi or a similar climate.

19. Canna Lily

Canna Lily

Canna spp.

  • Status: Introduced

Contrary to popular belief, the canna lily is neither native to Hawaiʻi nor a member of the botanical lily family. That doesn’t make its colorful blooms any less impressive, though.

In my experience, canna lilies are frequently grown alongside other tropical showstoppers like Bird of Paradise, anthurium, and torch ginger. It’s a tried and true way to give any resort or restaurant a bit of island flair.

Some types of canna lily have naturalized in Hawaiian forests and may be mistaken for natives. Canna lilies spread via rhizomes and may become invasive if not properly maintained.

20. Kou

Kou

Cordia subcordata

  • Status: Indigenous

Kou is a flowering tree found throughout the Pacific Region, including parts of eastern Africa and southern Asia. Its widespread distribution is attributed to buoyant fruit perfectly suited to travelling on ocean currents.

Until somewhat recently, it was believed that Polynesian settlers introduced kou trees to the islands of Hawaiʻi. That belief changed when researchers discovered evidence of kou growing on Kauaʻi prior to any human activity. Now kou is classified as a native Hawaiian plant.

Kou trees have bright orange, trumpet-shaped flowers born in clusters. Although kou is not ideal for all landscaping scenarios, cultivation is increasingly important as wild populations dwindle.

21. Pua Male (Madagascar Jasmine)

Pua Male

Stephanotis floribunda

  • Status: Introduced

This tough evergreen vine is a staple of Hawaiian weddings, where its flowers are used for things like bridal bouquets and leis. Though commonly called Madagascar jasmine (the scent is very reminiscent of Jasminum), the pua male is more closely related to the hoya plant.

Establishing a pua male in the garden can be a bit tough since it needs a sturdy support structure to climb. It’s most popularly grown as a means to add privacy to property or disguise an otherwise unsightly fence.

The fruit of pua male looks a lot like mangoes or avocados but isn’t good for eating. While this vine takes a while to get going, mature plants are very easy to propagate via either cuttings or seeds.

22. Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea spp.

  • Status: Introduced

Though certainly not native to the islands, bougainvillaea is scattered all over the local landscape, especially in more developed regions like the Honolulu metro area. They’re often found spilling over retaining walls or scrambling up fences.

Sometimes mistaken for a type of rose bush, this thorny plant can have a vine-, shrub-, or tree-like growth habit. The vibrant flowers (which are actually composed of modified leaves called bracts) appear in the spring.

23. Bromeliad

Bromeliad

Bromeliaceae family

Status: Varied

Bromeliaceae is a family of oft-epiphytic tropical plants. The most famous member of the bromeliad family is, without a doubt, the pineapple (Ananas comosus). A handful of bromeliads are native to Hawaiʻi, but most seen around the islands have been introduced from the Americas.

Bromeliads have thick, grass-like foliage that forms a tight rosette. Many varieties have ‘cups’ or ‘tanks’ in the center of the leaves that collect falling rainwater. Epiphytic species of bromeliad grow in trees and rock crevices rather than in the soil, so this irrigation strategy is vital to their success.

Many kinds of bromeliad are bright and colorful even when not in flower. The flowers are tall and spiky and can emerge from the center of the plant at any time of year.

For more information about growing in subtropical areas, here’s a link to Passion Fruit Growth Stages that you may like.

FAQs Flowers of Hawaii

Which Hawaiian flowers are used to make leis?

Most visitors to Hawaiʻi are familiar with leis made of plumeria or orchid blossoms. However, dozens of different flowers can be used to make traditional leis, including pikake, pua male, and ponimoʻi (carnation). Some flowers are generally reserved for special occasions — e.g., pua male leis are worn at weddings.

Citations

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.