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The striking yellow hibiscus flower is a quintessential symbol of Hawaiian culture and natural beauty. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the yellow hibiscus, known in Hawaiian as ma’o hau hele, was designated the official state flower of Hawaii in 1988.

This article will explore the history and significance behind Hawaii’s choice of the bright and cheerful hibiscus as its state flower. We’ll learn about the different varieties of Hawaiian hibiscus flowers, their unique traits, and traditional and modern cultural uses.

You’ll also discover why this blossom is the perfect floral emblem for the Aloha State.

The History of the Yellow Hibiscus as Hawaii’s State Flower

Origins and Meaning of Hawaii’s State Flower Name

The bright yellow hibiscus was designated as Hawaii’s official state flower in 1988. This showy, tropical bloom has a storied history intertwined with Hawaii’s culture. The Hawaiian word for hibiscus is “ma’o hau hele,” which translates to “green traveling hibiscus.”

This poetic name refers to the way the blossoms seem to follow the sun across the sky.

In the islands’ language, the color yellow is connected with royalty, likely because many ancient Hawaiian royals wore vibrant yellow feather capes and cloaks. So the vibrant golden hues of the yellow hibiscus carry a royal symbolism.

Beyond the meaning behind its name, the hibiscus flower has cultural significance in Hawaiian customs. Worn behind the ear, a yellow hibiscus indicates that the wearer is single or looking for a relationship. Hawaiian women often wear hibiscus blossoms in their hair for special occasions.

When given as a gift, the bright bloom expresses affection between friends or loved ones.

Legislation and Process of State Flower Selection

Efforts to name an official state flower began as early as 1919, when the territorial legislature considered designating the pua aloalo as Hawaii’s territorial flower. But no consensus was reached for decades.

Lawmakers, conservationists, and citizens debated the merits of native species like the pua aloalo versus showy non-natives like plumeria and hibiscus.

By the 1980s, momentum was building to select a flower that reflected Hawaii’s natural beauty but was not at risk of extinction. Conservationists were concerned that choosing an endangered endemic flower could lead to overharvesting.

When a bill landed on Governor John Waihee’s desk in 1988 formally adopting the yellow hibiscus (Hibiscus brackenridgei) as state flower, he remarked, “This bill represents a culminating effort of our state Legislature to select a flower symbolic of the natural beauty of Hawaii.

I’m pleased to make it law.”

Today, you’ll spot the bright yellow hibiscus, with its distinct crimson center, in Hawaiian gardens, parks, celebrations, artwork, and events year-round. School kids dress in yellow hibiscus leis for May Day festivities.

And at any luau, golden hibiscus blossoms are sure to make a vibrant appearance.

Traits and Varieties of Hawaiian Yellow Hibiscus Flowers

Distinctive Characteristics

The bright yellow hibiscus flower (Hibiscus brackenridgei) was declared the official state flower of Hawaii in 1988. This vibrant tropical bloom stands out with its flashy golden yellow color and striking looks. Here are some of its most distinctive traits:

  • Large, showy flowers with 5-6 yellow petals surrounding a maroon center
  • The flowers can grow up to 6 inches wide
  • Has a striking, dark reddish-brown center which provides great contrast
  • Emits a faint, sweet fragrance
  • The leaves are a medium green and have a toothy margin
  • Hawaiian yellow hibiscus can grow quite tall, often up to 15 feet!

This gorgeous flower thrives in tropical environments and does very well in the warmth and sun of Hawaii. No wonder it was chosen to represent the Aloha State! With big, bright blooms that evoke the colors of a Hawaiian sunset, it’s a quintessentially tropical flower that feels right at home among palm trees and beaches.

Popular Cultivars and Hybrids

Over the years, horticulturists have developed numerous cultivars and hybrid varieties of yellow hibiscus tailored to home gardens and landscapes:

  • “Hawaiian Sunset” – A very showy hybrid with 6-8″ flowers in vibrant golden yellow and dark red.
  • “Island Sunrise” – A tropical look with large 6″ blooms in golden yellow with a dark eye.
  • “Hawaiian Gold” – A sturdy cultivar that bears lots of 5-6″ golden blooms.
  • “Hawaii Five-O” – Named after the TV show, it has gorgeous 6″ yellow flowers with lightly ruffled petals.

Other popular yellow hibiscus cultivars include “Hawaiian Flare,” “Tropical Sunrise,” “Hawaiian Punch” and more. Many of these varieties do well in containers, making them great for patios and poolside planting.

With so many types to choose from, there’s a vibrant Hawaiian yellow hibiscus for virtually every garden!

Cultural Significance and Traditional Uses in Hawaii

Prevalence in Hawaiian Folklore and Mythology

The vibrant yellow hibiscus flower, known as Hawaii’s state flower, has been interwoven into Hawaiian culture and folklore for centuries. According to ancient Hawaiian legends, the hibiscus plant originated when a beautiful maiden named Kapo transformed into a yellow hibiscus tree after she had rescued the islands from a threatening volcanic eruption with her magical dancing.

The bright yellow hibiscus blossoms that emerged from the tree symbolized her radiant beauty and kind spirit.

The hibiscus flower is also associated with several Hawaiian gods and goddesses. The red hibiscus flower is said to represent Pele, the powerful volcano goddess, while the yellow hibiscus is a symbol of Laka, the goddess of hula dancing.

Hawaiian folk tales describe how Pele and Laka would adorn themselves with garlands of vibrant hibiscus blossoms.

Significance in Ancient Hawaiian Society and Ceremonies

In ancient Hawaiian culture, the yellow hibiscus held profound meaning and was used extensively in rituals and ceremonies. Its bright color signified life, celebration, and the Aloha spirit. Yellow hibiscus garlands and leis were commonly worn by Hawaiian royalty, healers, and spiritual leaders.

The bark from the hibiscus tree was used to make rope and fishing nets, while the flower’s nectar was brewed into a sweet medicinal tea. Parts of the hibiscus plant were incorporated into traditional Hawaiian herbal remedies believed to purify blood, ease respiratory issues, and promote general wellness.

When important guests visited or during significant life events like weddings, yellow hibiscus flowers were interwoven into beautiful floral displays and leis as a traditional Hawaiian custom expressing honor, respect, and blessing.

Modern and Contemporary Symbolic Meaning

Today, the bright and cheerful yellow hibiscus remains an iconic symbol of Hawaiian culture. Its image is found across Hawaii on street signs, state parks, websites, documents, fabrics, and souvenirs. The flower’s vibrant color and welcoming form reflect core aspects of Hawaiian culture – warmth, celebration of natural beauty, and the welcoming spirit of Aloha.

Each year, over 50,000 yellow hibiscus floral leis are distributed by flight attendants to visitors arriving at Hawaii’s airports. This unique Hawaiian tradition, known as the lei greeting, allows the hibiscus lei’s bright petals and sweet fragrance to envelop newcomers with the spirit of Aloha.

Beyond tourism, Hawaii’s state flower is celebrated across the islands in gardens, landscape architecture, agriculture, cuisine, art, and events. Its image represents the islands’ lush natural landscapes, local pride, welcoming culture, and vibrant Pacific spirit.


The vibrant yellow Hawaiian hibiscus perfectly encapsulates the allure of America’s island paradise with its cheerful disposition and cultural heritage. As the Aloha State’s distinctive emblem, the ma’o hau hele represents Hawaiian values of welcoming others with warmth, respect, and open arms.

So next time you’re presented with a golden Hawaiian hibiscus, think of its rich meaning and history as a beloved icon of the Islands.

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