Before human contact, the islands that would later be deemed as Hawaiʻi were alive with vegetation. Because of the exceedingly remote nature of the island chain, the flora had all arrived via “waves, wind, or wings,” with a new plant species taking root once every 100,000 years. Often, the plants would then evolve to their new environment, leading to Hawaiʻi’s native species. Some are still found nowhere else on the planet: Hawaiʻi’s endemic species.
One such example is ʻIliahi, or Hawaiian Sandalwood. Hawaiʻi is home to four endemic species of sandalwood with even more subspecies. At the time of earliest human contact, the Hawaiian islands were covered in ʻiliahi, stretching from the mountains to the shoreline in some places. In 1791, Captain John Kendrick made a stop on Kauaʻi to replenish his wood supply and was struck by the island’s abundance of sandalwood. At the time, there was an enormous demand in China for the sweet-smelling heartwood. It became Hawaiʻi’s first export and was fervently traded until commercially extinct in about 1840. The restoration of ʻIliahi has become a movement and it is currently growing on all of the main Hawaiian islands. Harvesting of sandalwood is still allowed in Hawaiʻi and the fragrant flowers of the tree are used in lei making and in some niche local products and fragrances.
It may be surprising to learn that many of the flower species and floral scents that are so readily associated with Hawaiʻi are not in fact native, but were brought to the islands over time. Think: plumeria, bird of paradise, pīkake (or jasmine), red ginger, tuberose, and puakenikeni, to name just a few. Many of these introduced flower species became fast favorites of Hawaiian royals and have had a large and wonderful impact on the lei culture boom in Hawaiʻi
In particular, Pīkake, a species of jasmine, was brought to the islands in the 1800s and was instantly loved by Princess Kaʻiulani. Also having an adoration for peacocks, the princess named the jasmine flower “pīkake” after the Hawaiian language word for peacock. The small, white, bell-shaped flowers have a strong and pure fragrance, and are sometimes added to unscented lei to give them a perfume. The delicate blossoms are also kui (or strung) in single, precious stands, or often given in multiple strands. Pīkake lei is a favorite among brides and associated with other very special occasions. Grown commercially in countries such as India, Thailand, China, and the Philippines for its fresh flowers made into flavoring for tea and perfume, pīkake also thrives in Hawaiʻi. Though it grows profusely, it still takes many, many blossoms to make a pīkake lei, and they are in turn held in especially high regard.
Yet another flower species that has thrived upon finding itself in Hawaiʻi is the Tiare flower, or TahitianGardenia. This name is a misnomer, as the plant is neither native nor naturalized to Tahiti and originates from Melanesia and Western Polynesia. It has glossy, dark green leaves and a snow-white, pinwheel-shaped flower. With a sweet and subtle scent, the tiare is commonly used to make lei, worn behind the ear, or placed in a shallow bowl of water to perfume a room. While Tahitian Gardenia is treasured, it is rarely used in commercial perfumes due to its prohibitively high large-scale production cost.