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The naupaka flower’s story

Hawaiian Studies Instructor Terry Panee shares two different versions of the story of Hawaii’s naupaka

Photo by Yui Leung

Students from BYU–Hawaii may see the white, half-circle shape of the naupaka flower on the coast of the beach or while hiking mountain trails in Laie. If students paused to pick one naupaka flower from the mountains and one from the coast, the two halves would match perfectly to create a complete flower, said Hawaiian Studies Instructor Terry Panee. An adjunct faculty member in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts, Panee said, “[This] mysterious flower has some myths that have been handed down by people over generations.”

“All stories about the naupaka flower show a symbol of forbidden love that would never be,” said Panee, who has worked for more than 35 years at the Polynesian Cultural Center and has been the manager of the Island of Hawai’i Village for eight years.

Panee explained different versions of the naupaka flower’s story are told depending on where people are from.

The legend of the naupaka

According to Panee, the first version of the legend was told like this:

There was a princess named Naupaka and a man named Kau’i. The beautiful princess and the lowly fisherman fell in love at first sight and desperate to be together, they met with a Kupuna and begged him to bless them. However, it was not allowed because they were from different class statuses. They then met with the high priest, but he gave the same answer as the Kupuna. He nevertheless said if they really wanted to be blessed, they should pray to the gods.

After they prayed, lightning struck the area and it started to rain. These signs made them realize even the gods didn’t want their union. So Naupaka took a flower that she had behind her ear and tore it in half. She gave one half to Kau’i and kept the other one. She said to Kau’i, “Go back to the ocean, and I’ll stay up here in the mountains. This flower is a symbol of our love.” Kau’i returned to the ocean with his half-flower, called naupaka kahakai, while Princess Naupaka held the other half-flower, called naupaka kuaihiwa, in the mountains.

The second version of the legend Panee shared involved Princess Naupaka’s sister named Pele:

Naupaka went to Pele for advice after talking with the Kupuna, high priests and the gods. Pele went to see Kau’i at the beach and instantly fell in love with him. She told him to forget Naupaka and be with her instead, but Kau’i rejected her and proclaimed his love for Naupaka.

In anger, Pele sent lava after Kau’i, so he ran away with Naupaka into the mountains. The couple prayed together and it began to rain. The rain reduced the speed of the lava and they eventually escaped safely. However, they realized they could never be together, so Naupaka took the flower behind her hair, split it in two and gave Kau’i one half of it.

Photo by Yui Leung

The meaning behind the flower

According to, “There are two varieties of the naupaka, one growing near the sea called naupaka kahakai, the other in the mountain is called naupaka kauihiwa. Each bears what appears to be half of a blossom and when placed together, they form a perfect flower.”

Some people say when you put the two flowers together in the rain, it is symbolic of Naupaka and Kau’i crying because they could never be together, Panee said.

He further explained the meaning of the words “kahakai” and “kuaihiwa”. Panee said “kaha” means to make a mark, like when waves leave lines in the sand, and “kai” means ocean. In contrast, he said “kuaihiwa” means freshwater.

Michellae Timata, a BYUH alumna from Laie and Tahitian dancer at the Polynesian Cultural Center said she saw the naupaka flower for the first time a couple of years ago when she was canoeing in the lagoon at the center. She said she saw the naupaka kuaihiwa in the mountains when she went hiking.

Timata said, “If you go to Hukilau Beach, you can find the oceanside flower, naupaka kahakai along where the sand is and everything is green.”

She said the luau at the PCC used to include a Hawaiian dance number about the legend of the naupaka flower. That’s when she first learned about the naupaka flower, explained Timata.

Kela Miller, a cultural specialist at the Marriott Hotel next to the PCC, said she used to find naupaka flowers in the winter when she was young.

The naupaka flower works as medicine, explained Miller. She said, “My grandma and grandpa used naupaka flower when we were stung by bluebottle jellyfish in the ocean.You wrap up the sting, squeeze the leaves and the naupaka flower together and rub it on your skin.”