In the Garden

Rick Barboza



Gardenia brighamii

Hawaiian gardenia baby, yeahhh!! ... The yellow-orange pulp found within the fruit was highly valued for making a rich yellow dye for Hawaiian royalty. The color is so unique that it was called na'u, after the plant from which it is derived. The light-colored wood was also used for making house posts for people of high status, and the fragrant flowers were strung into leis. This is the perfect flower for "behind da eeah" to make the beautiful women of Hawaii even more beautiful, or at least smell better! Nah, only joke!

Description: A large shrub 4 to 20 feet tall with light green leaves and light tan trunk. Tiny clear to opaque yellow resin balls develop at stem tips prior to formation of new leaves. Small flowers about 2 inches across resemble a tuberose flower rather than a gardenia and smell like the larger bushy, non-native gardenia flower but with a hint of coconut oil. It smells good enough to eat, but I wouldn't recommend that because it tastes terrible.

Once the flowers are pollinated, a large green fruit about the size of a golf ball forms. Inside the ripe fruit, brilliant yellow-orange pulp surrounds a hard capsule containing about 100 seeds.

Distribution: This extremely rare plant is one of many native Hawaiian plants found on the federal government's list of endangered species. There are only about three plants in the wild on Oahu, one plant on the Big Island, a few on Molokai, a handful on Lanai and a few on Maui. Altogether, about 15 to 20 plants remain statewide, and because this is a species endemic to Hawaii, there are no others in the world!

The plants were once believed to have existed on all of the main islands in the dry forest, but are now restricted to the populations mentioned. The lowland dry forest where this and many other native plants are found is the most species-diverse ecotype in Hawaii, even more so than the rain forest.

The plant is available from a few respectable nurseries on Oahu.

Landscape use and care: This must-have plant looks great as a hedge (if enough are available) or as a specimen plant that stands alone in all its glory. Treat this plant the way plant enthusiasts treat their puakenikeni, placing it where everyone can see it. No be shame. Show dis buggah off; it deserves it.

Full sun is best, causing this plant to grow faster and remain bushy. Daily watering is fine if you have well-drained soil; if not, wait until the surrounding soil dries before watering again. Once the plant is established, reduce watering to once every two to four days or when needed. This plant doesn't require much watering -- great for summer, when water conservation is important.

Tasty tidbit: There are two more species of gardenia that are native to Hawaii; can you name them?

These are not the tiare, which comes from Tahiti, and not the Amy. The two other na'u are Gardenia manii, another endangered plant found only on Oahu, and Gardenia remyi, not listed as endangered but still rare, found only on Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Hawaii.

Hawaii has so many plants that are not available to people that gardeners were forced to go the non-native route in buying a tiare instead of a na'u, or a Fijian fan palm instead of our native loulu fan palms. Now that many of these plants are available, it would make sense to help perpetuate our unique Hawaiian species rather than invest in plants that could become an invasive species.

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