A Local’s Guide to the Prettiest Hawaiian Flowers

painting of two pink and yellow plumerias Hawaiian flowers
Tropical Delight by Karen Whitworth

Are you looking for a list of the prettiest Hawaiian flowers? This guide from a Hawaii local has all of the best tropical flowers in Hawaii!

There are tons of beautiful Hawaiian flowers. While some are native to Hawaii, others have been introduced and integrated into local culture. Regardless, all of them add to the stunning natural landscapes that Hawaii is so well known for.

*Disclosure: This post was written in partnership with the Art of Karen Whitworth. All opinions are from Borders & Bucket Lists. All photos are courtesy of the Art of Karen Whitworth. All of the paintings featured in the photos can be purchased on the Art of Karen Whitworth website.

pair of hibiscuses, one pink and one orange
Sunlit Duet by Karen Whitworth

What to Know About Seeing Hawaiian Flowers

Keep the Hawaiian Flowers Safe and Alive

When seeking out Hawaiian flowers, it is important to remember that many of them are endangered species. As quite a few can only be found in Hawaii, it is especially important to keep the rare plants in the islands safe.

To do so, there’s basically just one simple rule: look but don’t touch. I know sometimes it can be tempting to pluck a flower or two off of the plant, but, when these species are rare, this can harm the population. As a matter of fact, this seemingly innocent action is one of the main reasons for the dwindling ahinahina (Haleakala Silversword) population!

That said, if the flower has already fallen off the tree or if it’s a flower that can easily be found on hotel properties, there’s not much harm in plucking a single flower and putting it behind your ear.

painting of two yellow and pink plumerias
Heavenly Scent by Karen Whitworth

Wear a Flower on the Proper Ear

One of the most common mistakes that visitors to Hawaii make is putting a flower behind the wrong ear. Wearing a flower tucked behind your right ear means something very different than wearing a flower tucked behind your left ear.

A flower behind your right ear means that means you’re single. A flower behind your left ear, on the other hand, means you’re taken. So if you choose to pluck a flower off the ground or from the hotel grounds, be sure to put it behind the proper ear! Here’s an easy way to remember: your wedding ring goes on your left hand, so if you’re taken, the flower goes in your left ear.

Not All Hawaii Flowers Are Native to Hawaii

Many people confuse native or indigenous Hawaiian flowers with flowers that are simply found in Hawaii or associated with Hawaii.

Native or indigenous Hawaiian flowers are the flowers that originated in Hawaii. These include certain varieties of hibiscuses, ilima blossoms, and ohia lehua blossoms, for example.

On the other hand, there are flowers that are simply associated with Hawaii but were native to some other part of the world and introduced to Hawaii. These include plumerias, birds of paradise, and heliconia, just to name a few.

vertical trio of yellow hibiscuses Hawaiian flowers
Past Present Future by Karen Whitworth

Where to See Hawaiian Flowers in the Islands

Determining where to see Hawaiian flowers in Hawaii depends on the popularity and abundance of that particular flower.

Out and About

Some of the most abundant Hawaiian flowers can be found just as you’re wandering around the islands. Plumerias, hibiscuses, and birds of paradise can easily be found decorating hotel properties, at tourist attractions, or even just along random sidewalks.

In Botanical Gardens

For the mildly hard to find Hawaiian flowers, head to the botanical gardens of the islands. While there, you can find gems like pikake, ginger, and heliconia, along with all of the beautiful flowers you can see while out and about.

single orange and pink hibiscus on colorful background
Pervading Beauty by Karen Whitworth

On Hikes

While you can see many Hawaiian flowers on hikes, they’re harder to spot, because they’re surrounded by so much greenery. That said, depending on which island you’re on and which hikes you choose to tackle, you can see certain Hawaii flowers, such as the ilima blossom and heliconia, while hiking in Hawaii.

Deep Out in Nature

The rarest of the rare Hawaiian flowers can only be found deep out in nature. These are often the most fragile plants, so they’ve only survived where few humans have seen them. This includes Hawaiian flowers like the kolii and the Haleakala Lobelia.

12 of the Prettiest Hawaiian Flowers

painting of three pink plumerias
Paradise Delight by Karen Whitworth

Plumeria

While many of the Hawaiian flowers on this list are native to the islands, plumerias are not. There are dozens of varieties of plumerias found in Hawaii, ranging from white to yellow to pink to orange. The most popular varieties are those with a white flower with a yellow center.

These aromatic flowers originally became a symbol of Hawaii, because they were used in the flower leis given to tourists visiting the islands. Since plumerias have been harder to grow and get ahold of today, the leis for tourists are now made from purple and white orchids instead. Now, you’re more likely to see a single plumeria tucked behind an ear, rather than an entire flower lei of them.

To see as many varieties of plumerias as possible, head to Koko Crater Botanical Garden on the island of Oahu.

one brightly colored painting of a yellow, orange, and pink hibiscus Hawaiian flowers
Radiance by Karen Whitworth

Hibiscus

When writing about Hawaiian flowers, one would be remiss to forget about the hibiscus. While only certain varieties are native to the islands, the flower is still significant, as the yellow hibiscus is the official state flower of Hawaii. They are also one of the most popular flowers scattered throughout the islands.

Hibiscuses come in a wide array of colors, such as pink, red, yellow, white, and orange. The ancient Hawaiians valued these flowers, not only because they were beautiful, but also because they were used for medicine, clothing, and dye.

Today, people have found many other uses for this versatile Hawaiian flower. Hibiscuses can be used in tea, as a fragrance oil, and even as a candied treat.

painting of a pair of birds of paradise
If Looks Could Kill by Karen Whitworth

Bird of Paradise

Just like the iconic plumeria, the bird of paradise plant is not native to Hawaii either. Rather, it is native to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. This bird-shaped flower is often the first thing people think of when discussing tropical Hawaiian flowers. And though it is not native to the island, this one-of-a-kind plant grows wild on many islands in Hawaii.

The bird of paradise’s main use is as a bright pop of color in many flower arrangements. With the Japanese custom of ikebana (flower arranging), people who like to add a local twist often add the bird of paradise to their designs.

Lilikoi Blossom

Lilikoi, the Hawaiian name for passion fruit, is a popular treat in the Hawaiian Islands. Although there are both purple and yellow varieties found in the islands, the plant was only introduced to Hawaii in 1923. You can try everything from lilikoi syrup to lilikoi salad dressing to lilikoi ice cream. But even though lilikoi flavors are pervasive in the islands, the fruits and flowers are not as well known.

Lilkoi is actually extremely costly to grow. While decades ago, there were a few small lilikoi farms dotting the islands, they all eventually shut down, simply because production costs were too high. Consequently, the only place to get lilikoi in Hawaii is at farmer’s markets.

This also means that finding the lilikoi blossom is even harder. This otherworldly purple and white blossom evades even some Hawaii locals. Your best bet is to head to Maunawili Falls, one of the best waterfall hikes on Oahu, to get a glimpse of these Hawaiian flowers.

yellow bird near pink plant Hawaiian flowers
‘Amakihi Bird and Koli’i by Karen Whitworth

Kolii

When it blooms, the kolii becomes a beautiful bunch of bright pink flowers that stands out from the vibrant green Hawaii landscape. These flowers only bloom in the winter, which is Hawaii’s rainiest season.

While many of the Hawaiian flowers on this list are commonly found in the wild, in botanical gardens, or even around hotel properties, the kolii is not. Rather, it is so rare, that it can only be found in the remote areas of the Koolau Mountains on Oahu, or, occasionally on Maui and Molokai.

Haleakala Lobelia

Hawaii is home to many endangered Hawaiian flowers, but the Haleakala lobelia may be one of the rarest of them all. Only found in the most isolated gulches on Maui, this bluebell variation is certainly a special thing to see. And if you’re extremely lucky, the adorable endangered iiwi bird might be collecting some nectar from the lovely plant.

Ilima

The ilima blossom is a tiny little yellow flower with a lot of history and importance behind it. While today this indigenous flower is the official flower of the island of Oahu, in the times of the ancient Hawaiians, it was even more important.

The ilima blossom was so highly valued in Hawaiian culture that it was one of the only plants that the ancient Hawaiians purposefully cultivated. They then used these precious little flowers for lei making – but just one single-stranded lei required 500 to 1,000 flowers! In other words, it’s no question of why the native Hawaiians decided to go through the effort of planting these Hawaiian flowers.

One of the most common places to see the beautiful ilima blossom is on the Mahaulepu Heritage Coastal Trail on Kauai.

rare red Hawaiian bird perches on ohia lehua plant
‘I’iwi and ‘Ohi’a Lehua by Karen Whitworth

Ohia Lehua

The ohia lehua blossom and tree played such a significant role in the ancient Hawaiians’ way of life. The leaves were used for medicinal purposes, and the bark was used for everything from pounding poi to beating kapa cloth. 

While the uses for this flower are definitely interesting, the Hawaiian legend behind it is fascinating too. Once upon a time, there was a man named Ohia, who drew the attention of the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele. But Ohia loved a woman named Lehua, and Lehua loved Ohia. In her jealousy, Pele turned Ohia into a horrid, gnarled plant that became known as the ohia tree. Then, the rest of the Hawaiian gods took pity on Lehua and transformed her into a beautiful red flower on the ohia tree, so that the two of them could never be separated ever again.

In ancient times, the ohia lehua tree was one of the most resilient Hawaiian flowers. It was known for being able to grow in the dry, harsh landscapes of lava rock right after a fresh lava flow. However, currently, the ohia lehua tree is struggling. There are two types of bacteria, Ceratocystis huliohia and Ceratocystis lukuohia, that are fatally harming the plants. So far, scientists and botanists have not found a cure.

The only way to even attempt to preserve the ohia lehua trees is to avoid spreading the bacteria in any way. To do so, make sure to leave ohia plants unharmed! Openings in the ohia plants’ outer bark can become entry points for these destructive bacteria. (In a way, you can think about it like getting a cut on your skin. This becomes an easy entry point for bacteria in the same way.)

You can catch a glimpse of some ohia lehua blossoms at Iao Valley on Maui.

painting of pink ginger plant Hawaiian flowers
Jeweled Pink Ginger by Karen Whitworth

Ginger

Hawaii’s ginger can be found in a wide range of colors, including pink, white, yellow, red, and even blue. It is not native to Hawaii, but rather introduced from southeast Asia.

The ancient Hawaiians found a myriad of uses for ginger plants. The leaves were used to cook food in the imu, the underground oven-like set-up. The ground roots were used to soothe toothaches and cavities. And the flowers were used to clean and moisturize the skin and hair.

Awapuhi ginger is actually still commonly used in many luxury hair products today, such as Paul Mitchell shampoo and conditioner. If you happen to own one of these plants, you can squeeze the red flower and the clear shampoo substance will easily ooze out.

You can see different varieties of ginger at many of Hawaii’s botanical gardens or even at various hotel properties. You can also see it in the wild on the Likeke Falls hike on Oahu or along the Road to Hana on Maui.

Pikake

More commonly known as jasmine, pikake is one of those scents that everyone associates with Hawaii. It’s actually commonly found in many Hawaii-scented candles. This little white flower started to gain popularity when Princess Kaiulani of the Kingdom of Hawaii became fond of it. The pikake flowers were then crafted into Hawaiian leis, and this tradition still continues today.

Pikake is found randomly around the islands and is most often recognized because of its strong, fragrant scent.

painting of red, yellow, and green heliconia plant
The Gift by Karen Whitworth

Heliconia

Heliconia plants exist in a wide variety of colors, including red, orange, yellow, pink, white and green. These colorful, yet sturdy plants easily spring up in Hawaii’s nature. While there are 22 different species in Hawaii, this plant is actually native to South America.

The famous Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden on Oahu has several heliconia plants for you to admire. You can also see a few heliconia plants in the wild on the Likeke Falls hike on Oahu.

Ahinahina (Haleakala Silversword)

Endemic to the slopes of Maui’s highest peak, the ahinahina, also known as the Haleakala Silversword, is unlike any of other Hawaiian flowers. These unique silvery plants are extremely rare and can only be found on Haleakala.

The actual flower part of the ahinahina appears just once, right before the end of the plant’s life. These plants can live for up to fifty years, and then, right before their end comes, they flower to spread their seeds.

One of the reasons the ahinahina is so rare is because many tourists get too curious and pick off parts of the plants! If you do get to see these endangered plants, remember to simply admire from afar, instead of harming them.

What other Hawaiian flowers do you think should be on this list? Let me know in the comments below!

Hoping to keep this list of tropical Hawaii flowers for later? Pin it!

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