Elisa Parhad

Headed To Hawai’i? Here Are 5 Plants Worth Seeking Out on The Islands

Hawai’i is one of those special places in the world where plant life is apparent from the moment your feet hit its soil. Whether a lei is placed around your neck, the fragrance of plumeria floods your nose, or the rush of lush green soothes your eyes, you are instantly aware that you’ve entered a tropical paradise.

The Hawai’an islands are the most isolated land mass on the planet, which has helped the land cultivate the highest percentage of endemic plants in the world. Over 90% of Hawai’an native plants are found nowhere else on the planet. However, many of the plants we associate with Hawai’i, such as sugarcane and pineapple, were brought to the islands from other tropical locations. Want to get to know some of the sublime, significant and striking plant life? Here are five plants to look out for next time you are in this American Shangri-La.

- Advertisements -

Torch Ginger

Although there are about 1,300 species and 47 genera of ginger, the torch ginger has the largest, tallest, and perhaps most decadent bloom of all gingers. Although not a native plant of Hawai’i, the torch ginger was brought to the islands by the Polynesians from Southeast Asia.

Once here, the name “Torch Ginger” was derived from the bloom’s resemblance to a Hawai’ian torch. The enormous pink or red flowers grace the islands from March to December and make beautiful, long-lasting cut flowers for tropical arrangements.



With their sumptuous inflorescence, looming scale, and seductive names like ‘Edge of Night’, ‘Sexy Pink’ and ‘Perfect Darling’, it’s no wonder that heliconias have a devoted following.

“With their sumptuous inflorescence, looming scale, and seductive names like ‘Edge of Night’, ‘Sexy Pink’ and ‘Perfect Darling’, it’s no wonder that heliconias have a devoted following…”

Heliconias have large leaves, can reach over 20-feet tall and have brightly-colored bracts that range from shocking orange and rich scarlet to blazing pink.The flowers are small and often hidden, but are a siren song for hummingbirds, who are their natural pollinators. Hawai’i has no hummingbirds, so they must be hand-pollinated to grow on the islands. (Sometimes called “false bird-of-paradise” or “wild plantain,” heliconias are cousins to both banana and ginger plants.)



The hibiscus has long been an icon of Hawai’i, where it is the state flower. Astute observers will notice that red hibiscus flowers were once the favored color for use on postcards, Hawai’ian shirts, and behind the ears of hula dancers. In the past two decades, however, the featured blooms have changed to yellow. In 1988 the native yellow hibiscus (Hibiscus brackenridgei) was designated as the officiate state flower of Hawai’i.

While hibiscus has been an official symbol of the islands since 1923, a specific variety had never been selected. Hawai’ians know the yellow hibiscus plant as ma’o hau hele. Although this species is found on almost every island, it is considered endangered in its native habitat. Hibiscus shrubs bear blooms daily, which only last about 24 hours. The large flowers open between approximately 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and close again in the morning hours between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.



If you go for a delectable shave ice, freshly-squeezed juice, or tropical margarita in Hawai’i, you will likely be offered the flavor of liliko’i. Liliko’i, as passion fruit is known in Hawai’ian, is also easy to find at farmers markets and super markets as a yellow or purple fruit. Passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) was first introduced to the islands in the 1830s, where the vines quickly became a popular cultivar in gardens.

Liliko’i is a beloved taste of the tropics, but the flower itself is a lesser-known treat. If you’ve never seen the purple blooms before, image that Dr. Seuss concocted a flower and then sent it to a hippie commune to live out its days as a devotee of the psychedelic arts. Some might describe it as aline, bizarre, or strange, but none can deny it is a stunning sight to see.


Kalo aka Taro

Taro, known as kalo in Hawai’ian, is a culturally-significant plant on the islands. Taro is planted in large flooded fields, known as lo’i, to cultivate important staples of Hawai’i’s native cuisine including poi, a starchy pudding made from pounded taro corms; taro chips; and taro leaves– used to wrap meats in traditional luau foods such as laulau (taro-wrapped pork). Every part of the kalo plant is edible when cooked.

Hawai’ian lore and language ties the concept of taro and family together. The Hawai’ian creation story holds that Wakea, god of the sky, had two sons. The first son was born lifeless, but grew into a kalo plant after being buried. Wakea’s second son is considered to be the first born Hawai’ian and the common ancestor of all Hawai’ians. Today, the Hawai’ian word for family, ohana, comes from the taro plant. The offshoots that grow in a circle from a parent taro are called oha. These oha mature and grow into an new generation of kalo. Eventually, the offshoots from a single kalo plant can fill up an entire lo’i field. Ohana means “many oha”– an invocation that continues to exemplify the Hawai’ian concept of large, extended families.

- Advertisements -
Related Articles