Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Cecilia Fernandez Romero
Against the salt air, beach naupaka thrusts up clusters of slightly succulent green leaves. This robust coastal shrub is among the most accessible native Hawaiian plants; see it hedging beachfront resorts or dangling white, waxy fruits over wild cliff faces along the road to Hana.
Tucked between its leaves are tiny, white, lopsided blooms—five-petaled half-flowers. The ancient Hawaiians noted this curiosity and found the beach plant’s doppelganger in the forest: naupaka kuahiwi, a mountain shrub bearing the same strange blossom.
The twin plants sparked numerous legends throughout the ages—most of which follow a Romeo-and-Juliet trajectory, describing star-crossed lovers doomed to eternal separation. Naupaka even served as the title and inspiration for the first Hawaiian-language opera. Performed in 2006, that version of the story sang of the forbidden love between a Hawaiian chief and a slave woman.
In fact, Hawai‘i is home to ten—not just two—naupaka species. Nine are endemic, meaning they evolved here and exist naturally nowhere else on earth. In addition to the coastal and mountain varieties, there is a dwarf shrub, a sprawling dune plant, and a rainforest species with a deep-throated, golden flower that’s reminiscent of a lobelia.
Though it’s the most common, the humble beach naupaka has a few worthy gems to offer the budding botanist. Both the fruits and the flowers make lovely lei. The wee blooms, when strung together, produce an intoxicating honeyed scent. And snorkelers are fond of the plant, which serves as a free and readily available defogger. The juice from a few crushed leaves will keep masks from clouding up underwater.
Next time you’re at the beach, take a few moments to appreciate the lovely naupaka reaching its leafy arms up from the sand. Don’t blame us if you break into song.