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Campus & Community

The colorful flower and symbol of Hawaii is good for more than just decoration

A pink hibiscus flower on a green bush.
A hibiscus
Photo by Mark Daeson Tabbilos

Hawaii does not have the fields of flowers mainlanders may think of when considering the humble wildflower. But the islands are nonetheless covered in wild-growing flowering plants. The Hawaiian yellow hibiscus, or ma‘o hau hele, is Hawaii’s state flower. However, the University of Hawaii’s Native Plant Propagation Database says there are seven native species of hibiscus dotting Hawaii, five of which are native to the islands.

According to the website, the ancient Hawaiians used hibiscus as decoration and to make leis. Hibiscus leis are beautiful, but due to the delicate nature of the flower petals, they only last a day before wilting.

More than just being pretty though, the website says the hibiscus flower was used as medicine. The buds and leaves are a gentle laxative suited even for children. Mashed into a juice and mixed with other plants, it was believed hibiscus could “purify blood” and eating the seeds would make a weak child strong.

Nowadays, hibiscus makes for a popular herbal tea. According to Healthline, hibiscus tea may help lower high blood pressure and reduce oxidative stress or damage done to the body by harmful chemicals and pollution. According to and, its flavor also pairs well with a variety of healthy ingredients like berries, fruits, ginger, turmeric, rosehips, lavender, chamomile or prickly pear cactus.

Dr. Esprit Saucier, assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences who teaches botany at BYU–Hawaii, said the Hawaiian red and white hibiscus flower is also a prominent wildflower in the islands. This flower is also known as the koki‘o ‘ula or koki‘o ke‘oke‘o.

Hau hele, a pink-colored hibiscus, can be found growing in the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and Central and South America, the University of Hawaii website says. Hau, which is a light yellow color, is believed to have been introduced to Hawaii by Polynesian settlers, which makes it a “canoe plant.” Nearly half of Hawaiian hibiscus species and subspecies are endangered, including the yellow hibiscus.

The hibiscus is a common sight for Hawaii residents, the website says. Chinese hibiscus is a popular ornamental plant that has also spread to the wild areas of Hawaii. The flower is even hybridized with Hawaiian hibiscus to create a dazzling array of color far wider than either Hawaiian or Chinese hibiscus could achieve on their own.

Many of these specially-grown flowers, or cultivars, have special names which can be found in a checklist maintained by the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Hibiscus cultivars include Molokai White, Shy Girl, Kanani Kea, Velvet Sunset, Oahu Red and Hawaiian Flag, among others.