When most people picture Hawai’i, they probably imagine pristine sandy beaches, unique wildlife, and stunning tropical flowers. It might come as a surprise that some of the most famous flowers associated with Hawai’i aren’t from the islands at all.
That’s not to say that the islands don’t have some striking flowering plants. Hawai’i is home to dozens of indigenous flowers, and many of them are endemic, meaning they don’t grow anywhere else on the planet.
Don’t be confused if some of the Hawaiian names appear for multiple plants in this list. Many words are used to describe multiple species by native Hawaiians. For instance, both Hawaiian prickly poppy and false ‘ohe go by the name pokalakala.
We’ve included botanical nomenclature to make everything crystal clear.
In Hawai’i, Dodonaea viscosa is known as kūmakani, ʻaʻaliʻi, ʻaʻaliʻi kū ma kua, and ʻaʻaliʻi kū makani. In English, it goes by hopbush, hopseed, and sticky hop bush. It’s indigenous to all of the islands where it is found in dry areas of all elevations.
This shrubby plant is covered in maroon or chartreuse flowers followed by hard seeds that are used in making leis. Related to soapberries, these nuts have been used medicinally.
These shrubs grow up to 16 feet tall and about as wide.
Closely related to begonias, ʻakaʻakaʻawa or puʻa maka nui (Hillebrandia sandwicensis) grows in moist, shady areas of Maui, Molokai, and Kauai. It used to appear on Oahu, but it has since become extinct. It’s the only member of the begonia family to grow indigenously in Hawai’i.
Botanists are pushing for the plant to appear on endangered listings as it is rapidly disappearing from its native range.
The pinkish-white or pure-white blossoms with yellow centers aren’t present on the plant, the large, glossy leaves make for an attractive addition to the garden. The plant itself grows to a respectable three feet tall when mature.
‘Akiahala (Hibiscus furcellatus), known as Hawaiian pink hibiscus in English, produces large, showy flowers that range from rose to light purple, with darker purple shades at the center of the flower. The flowers last just one day but the plant produces blossoms all year round.
It’s the only indigenous hibiscus to the islands. It’s also found in Florida, Central, and South America. All of the other hibiscus that grow there are endemic. It grows on the islands of Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi in swampy, moist areas.
Early Hawaiians cultivated the plant both for medicine and its ornamental value.
Both the seeds and the flower of alahe’e, also known as ohe’e (Psydrax odorata), are familiar sites in traditional leis. This shrub or small tree has clusters of heavily fragrant white blossoms. Following the blossoms, small black berries appear, which are eaten by birds.
The plant looks and smells similar to mock orange, but is indigenous to Hawai’i and grows on all the main islands and elevations below 4,000. It can tolerate both dry and wet soil.
While the shrubs typically stay under ten feet tall, they can grow to 30 feet tall in the right conditions.
Hāhā (Cyanea angustifolia) is found on Oʻah), eastern Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and northern West Maui, where it grows under 3,000 feet in elevation in moist or wet conditions. This endemic plant is common in the wild but is only rarely cultivated in gardens.
That’s a shame, because the palm-like tree has long, eye-catching purple, pink, and white inflorescences, followed by purple berries that wildlife love.
Because the tree stays under ten feet tall, it makes a good option for container or small gardens.
Hawaiian iliau or Kaua’i greensword (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium) is endemic to Kaua’i where it is endangered in its native habitat. It grows in mesic, dry forests in sunny areas around 3,000 feet in elevation. Despite that, they have proven to thrive in cultivation at sea level and are an easy plant to maintain.
While alien livestock has killed much of the wild populations, there are a few fenced, protected fields of the plant.
Each plant has a rosette of strappy leaves at the end of a woody stem from which tall fountains of cream and yellow flowers emerge in spring and early summer. In the evening the plant puts off a pleasant scent similar to ginger flower.
A plant can have either one single stem or can form multiple branches and can eventually reach ten feet tall.
Plants are short-lived and typically die after about five years, but then send out offshoots that will continue to grow.
ʻIlima kū kahakai
ʻilima kū kahakai, typically just called ilima (Sida fallax) is a small to medium-sized shrub dressed in bright yellow, orange, red, green, or maroon flowers that can be solid or a combination of colors.
The flowers open in the morning and only last one day, though the plant produces flowers all year long. Native bee populations feed on the flowers and spread pollen.
The tough plant can tolerate the saline conditions near the coast as well as dry, rocky beds at high elevations. It can be found on all of the islands.
The Pacific seabean (Mucuna gigantea), known as Kāe’e in Hawai’i, is a vine indigenous to Hawai’i and other Pacific Ocean islands. The vine itself can grow up to 50 feet long and has yellowish-green to greenish-white blossoms in large umbels. After the flowers fall from the plant, oblong green pods form. When these pods are mature, they turn brown and drop from the plant.
These seeds can land in the ocean and travel for thousands of miles to other locations, which is how the plant first ended up in Hawai’i.
These so-called beans aren’t actually edible. While they are used to make medicine, such a drug treatment for Parkinson’s disease, they can be toxic. Hawai’ians use the beans to make leis.
Kamole lau li`i
Kamole lau li`i, Mexican primrose-willow or willow primrose (Ludwigia octovalvis) is another one of those plants that may or may not be indigenous to Hawai’i. This herbaceous shrub grows on all the islands in wetland areas and blooms with small yellow blossoms on red stems.
It can also be found in southern North America, South America, parts of Asia, and the Middle East.
Hawaiian hydrangea has a lot of names. It goes by akiahala, kanawao, anawao keʻokeʻo, kanawao ʻulaʻula, kanawau, kupuwao, piʻohiʻa, pūʻahanui, and is classified as broussaisia arguta.
Whatever you call it, it all describes the endemic shrub that is covered in cream, light blue, pink, white, yellow, or greenish-white hydrangea-like blossoms.
Part of the hydrangea, it’s a good option for wet areas of any elevation that could use a little floral interest. Native birds love the small fruits that the plant produces after it flowers. In the wild, it can be found on all the inhabited islands.
Oceanblue Morning-glory or koali ʻawahia (Ipomoea indica) is part of the morning glory family with the characteristic shocking violet-blue flowers. Scientists are still trying to determine if this plant, which is native to parts of South America, is also native to Hawai’i or if it was introduced long ago.
We do know that early indigenous Hawaiians used the plant in folk medicine, and some people still use it today.
The vines can climb up to 20 feet long with huge flowers that close at night.
Hawaiian cotton tree (Kokia drynarioides) and its closely related K. cookei are similar trees with bright red flowers. K. drynarioides is endemic to Puʻuwaʻawaʻa and Huʻehuʻe in North Kona, and K. cookei is endemic to Molokai.
There are fewer than two dozen K. drynarioides left in the wild, and K. cookei are extinct.
However, there are about two dozen grafted trees that were created using the tissue of the last living tree, which died in a fire in 1978. It is considered one of the rarest plants on the planet.
As for K. drynarioides, it is cultivated on most of the islands for its cheerful blossoms and dark, leathery green foliage. While it can bloom year-round, it typically flowers in spring and fall.
Red abutilon, known locally as koʻoloa ʻula (Abutilon menziesii), is named for the deep red, maroon flowers that look similar to hibiscus. The flowers can also be pink, white, purple, salmon, yellow, or a combination of these colors.
The small tree blooms year-round, and though the plant is endangered in the wild, it is a popular garden option on the islands. It grows indigenously on the islands Oʻahu, Lānaʻi, Maui, and Hawaiʻi, but is cultivated anywhere humans inhabit.
It grows below 2,000 feet and is often used in the creation of leis.
At first, botanists thought that kou (Cordia subcordata) was brought from Polynesia when explorers traveled from those islands to the islands of Hawai’i. However, recent research shows that it was growing on the island of Kaua’i since before humans came to the area.
Today, the medium-sized tree grows on all of the islands in elevations below 1,000 feet in dry, saline areas.
This plant is closely related to borage, and the flowers look similar, except that they are pale or bright orange. After the flowers fade, the tree grows fruits that turn nearly black when ripe. These have a fleshy exterior and four hard seeds inside.
Ma’o Hau Hele
When people picture the flowers of Hawai’i, they often imagine a big, brilliant hibiscus flower. Most hibiscus growing on the islands are not native but have been introduced from other areas. However, Hibiscus brackenridgei is endemic to Hawai’i and is found on all the islands except Ni’ihau and Kaho’olawe.
Known as ma’o hau hele or Hawaiian hibiscus, it’s the state flower and is endangered. While people are slowly reintroducing it to the islands, it is rare in the wild.
The shrub or small tree has large, bright yellow flowers with a maroon center that appear in late winter and early spring.
The Hawaiian small-leaved mint (Stenogyne microphylla) isn’t a true mint, but it’s truly beautiful. It’s closely related to mint and is in the same family, Lamiaceae, but it lacks the characteristic minty scent and flavor.
That’s because mints maintain their distinctive fragrance to deter grazing animals. Since Hawai’i has none, the plants lost their defense mechanism. They also have much larger flowers than their close relatives in order to attract pollinating birds like the ‘amakihi (Chlorodrepanis virens).
It favors wet, warm, shaded areas and grows pink, red, and white blossoms along the stems. It’s endemic to all of the islands.
Sophora chrysophylla, known as māmane or Mamani in Hawai’ian, is not only indigenous to the islands, but it’s endemic there, which means it’s found nowhere else in the world. This plant is a member of the legume or pea family (Fabaceae) and grows large clusters of yellow blossoms.
Once the blossoms fade, winged brown fruits form that the local wildlife feast on.
These plants grow on all of the islands in elevations from sea level to 5,000 feet, though it is thought to be extinct on Lana’i. It usually grows in dry areas but can be found in moist forests. It grows as a shrub or tree, anywhere from six to 50 feet.
The beautiful Pacific rosewood (Thespesia populnea), known as Milo in Hawai’ian, is a striking tree that grows up to 40 feet tall with masses of large, bright yellow flowers with maroon centers. The flowers last just one day and then give way to papery gray seed capsules.
The shiny leaves can be up to a foot long.
There is some debate about whether this plant is indigenous or introduced. What is known is that the wood of the tree was used to craft canoes and bowls by the Polynesians who first populated the area.
Today, overharvesting has reduced the number of trees growing on the islands, where it typically only grows near the coast.
What would Hawai’i be without glorious gardenias? Endemic to the islands, Gardenia brighamii, known as nanu, na’u, or forest gardenia, is a small tree or shrub that features medium-sized white flowers at the ends of the branches. These plants flower continuously throughout the year, though in some areas, they will primarily flower in spring and fall, with sporadic blossoms during the rest of the year.
This plant is endangered in the wild but common in cultivation. It can be found on all the larger islands in dry forests below 2,000 feet in elevation.
Beach naupaka (Scaevola sericea) or naupaka kai is a large shrub that can grow up to ten feet tall, but typically stays closer to three feet tall. The white and purple flowers have five petals and are intensely fragrant and often used in leis.
Once the flowers have matured, fleshy berries form. These berries house the seeds, which have been known to travel in ocean currents for up to 250 days and still germinate when they find soil.
It can be found on all of the islands except for a few of the smaller northwestern ones, in dry, coastal areas.
Drought tolerant and fast-spreading, nehe (Lipochaeta connata) is endemic to the islands and makes for a beautiful groundcover without becoming overwhelming. It blooms sporadically all year with bright yellow flowers.
In the wild, it’s found on Niʻihau and Kauaʻi in dry forested areas, but it’s cultivated on all of the islands. The flowers of the plant were likely used by early Hawaiians to create leis.
Nohoanu (Silver Geranium)
Of the four geranium species that grow in Maui, Geranium cuneatum is the most common. Along the Haleakalā, the subspecies tridens is most often found. This geranium has silver, strappy leaves, and pink and white blossoms.
The plants bloom consistently throughout the year and are often the first flowers to appear in areas damaged by fire or lava.
You’ll also find the subspecies cuneatum and hololeucum, which look similar but are less common.
Nohoanu (Hawaiian Red Cranesbill)
Nohoanu (Geranium arboreum) is only found on the island of Maui on the slopes of Haleakalā, and is critically endangered. It has been decimated by invasive animals and plants encroaching on its territory. It’s listed on the federal endangered species list, and there are fewer than 500 individual plants left in the wild.
Park caretakers in the Haleakalā National Park are replanting the shrubs to try and repopulate their native habitat.
The Hawaiian words nohoanu or hinahina are used to describe all four geraniums that grow in Hawai’i, and this one is distinct for its deep red or magenta blossoms that are pollinated by birds, making it the only geranium in the world to be pollinated this way. The shrub can reach about 12 feet tall.
Nohoanu (Manyflowered Geranium)
In Hawaiian, all geraniums are known as nohoanu or hinahina. In English, this one is called manyflowered geranium (Geranium multiflorum), and it’s obvious why. The shrub can grow up to three feet tall with clusters of 20-25 small purple and white flowers.
It grows on the slopes of the Haleakalā volcano, where it has become critically endangered due to invasive plants and animals that have destroyed its environment. While park rangers are re-planting manyflowered geraniums on the volcano, there are only about 300 individual plants left in the wild.
Nohoanu (Maui Geranium)
This rare geranium (Geranium hanaense) was only discovered in 1988. It’s endangered in its native habitat on the slopes of Haleakalā on Maui. The shrub grows about two feet tall and produces white or white and magenta flowers in groups of six.
Oahu Pilo Kea
Oahu Pilo Kea is an endemic shrub that grows up to 20 feet tall with white blossoms followed by glossy black seeds.
There are several varieties, with Platydesma cornuta var. decurrens and var. cornuta growing on the islands, though the only known wild plants left are on Honolulu. Both are considered critically imperiled in their native habitat.
‘Ohi’a Lehua, sometimes called the lehua tree (Metrosideros polymorpha) is a common tree throughout the Hawai’ian islands. The specific epithet polymorpha means “many forms,” which describes this plant perfectly.
It comes in sizes from under two feet tall to over 50 feet tall. It can be a shrub or a single-stem tree, and the leaves and flowers can come in a huge variety of colors. There is a huge variability in the plant depending on where it grows.
These plants typically bloom consistently throughout the year with flowers that can be red, orange, or yellow in pretty pom-pom shapes. The trees only grow on indigenously on the Hawai’ian islands, where they can adapt to a range of different conditions, including filling in areas where lava has killed the existing flora.
Hawai’i has three endemic orchids, known as ‘okika in Hawaiian. These are the jewel orchid (Anoectochilus sandvicensis), widelip orchid (Liparis hawaiensis), and bog orchids (Platanthera holochila). All of these can be found on most of the islands, and all of them are reduced in numbers because of habitat loss.
Pōkūlakalaka (Polyscias racemosa) is sometimes called false ‘ohe or munroidendron. This small tree is endemic to the island of Kaua’i, where it is extremely rare and considered endangered in its native habitat. It’s only found in four areas on the island.
The tree thrives in dry areas and is popular in cultivation because it’s easy to grow. It features showy red and yellow blossoms that grow on long racemes that look like ponytails dangling from the tree. It blooms year-round, followed by long chains of white fruits.
The foot-long leaves have up to nine leaflets and are green with a golden-yellow fuzz on the underside, making this plant instantly recognizable.
Known as kokolau, koʻokoʻolau, koʻolau, kōʻokoʻolau, poʻolā nui, or cosmosflower beggarticks (Bidens cosmoides), this plant was valued for its use in making leis by early Hawaiians. While the plant is at-risk in Kaua’i, where it is endemic, it is cultivated in gardens across the isles.
This plant grows in dry rainforests at around 2,000 feet in elevation, where it blooms with large, showy orange and yellow blossoms throughout the year, with short rest periods. The plant is closely related to sunflowers and asters and has some of the largest blossoms of the family on the islands.
Pua ʻala, called cabbage on a stick in English (Brighamia rockii), lives up to its name. The rosette of leaves appears at the top of a thick stem. From that, pretty white flowers emerge.
This plant is endemic to the islands of Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and Maui, where it grows under 2,000 feet in elevation on dry, mesic cliffs.
This plant is extremely endangered, and experts suspect that there are fewer than 200 plants left in the wild. Botanists have planted some on the island of Mōkapu, which was overrun with rats until 2008, killing all of the cultivated pua ‘ala. However, now that the rats have been eliminated, botanists have replanted colonies in the hopes that the plant will take hold once again.
Argemone glauca, known in Hawaiian as pua kala, kala, naule, and pokalakala, and in English as beach or Hawaiian poppy, this herbaceous, clumping short-lived perennial has prickly leaves and vibrant flowers. Each delicate blossom has a brilliant yellow center with purple stigmas or yellow stamens and pure white margins.
The xeric plant flowers sporadically, and each blossom only lasts for a single day. Their ephemeral nature makes them all the more special. After the flowers fade, black-brown seeds form and fall from the plant to germinate to start new plants.
The seeds can survive fire, allowing the plant to repopulate areas that are destroyed by fire. They’re tolerant of drought conditions and hard, depleted soil, which is why many people cultivate them in challenging, dry spots.
This plant can be found growing wild on every island and in elevations from sea level to 5,000 feet.
The Hawaiian lily (Dianella sandwicensis) is known as ‘uki or ‘uki’uki on the islands, to which its endemic. The pale blue to white flowers have orange filaments and yellow anthers, followed by striking blue-purple fruits. Both the flowers and the fruits appear all year long.
The leaves are long and strappy on this grass-like plant, growing up to 40 inches tall. It grows in shady areas at all elevations on all of the islands.
This plant was once thought to be part of the daylily family, to which it bears a strong resemblance, but it is now categorized as the only genus within its family (Asphodelaceae) to appear in Hawai’i.
You might be wondering where the iconic flowers like frangipani (Plumeria spp.), bird of paradise (Strelitzia spp.), or bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spp.) are on this list, while these flowers are cultivated in gardens everywhere on the islands, they aren’t indigenous to Hawai’i.
Phalaenopsis or moth (Phalaenopsis spp.) and cattleya (Cattleya spp.) orchids, carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), and tuberose (Agave amica), while extremely common in leis and other displays, aren’t native to the islands either.