A touch of autumn in paradise.
When most people think of “fall colors,” they don’t traditionally think of a paradise of year-round sunshine and warmth like the islands of Hawaii. But there is actually an incredible variety of flora and fauna in a whole host of spots across The Aloha State, with fall colors in the form of both flowers and foliage. Here are some autumnal hues to enjoy in Hawaii—some of which are even endemic to the islands, meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world—as well as top spots to see them (without any of the chilliness of nippy northern temperatures!).
Flowers That Feel Like Fall
Bougainvillea is originally from Brazil, and native to Central and South America, surviving best in warm temperatures they can withstand a light frost but not traditionally anywhere temperatures drop below 25 degrees. The vines grow a range of delicate and colorful bracts that can run a range of colors including bright orange and red. Visitors can commonly spot these flowers on the Big Island along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway which stretches from Kona Airport to Kailua-Kona.
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There are roughly 80 species of the colorful Heliconia—nicknamed “Lobster-claws”—a family of flowers, which originally came to Hawaii from regions like the Caribbean and Central and South America. These flowers can grow in colors like bright yellow, red, and orange, overlapping and appearing to unfold like graceful origami birds.
The Hibiscus is an iconic flower of Hawaii, with the yellow hue of this flora’s stature as the state flower. Today, they bloom year-round in a wide range of colors including orange, yellow, and red. The hibiscus flowers are usually between 4- to 6-inches in size, with delicate petals surrounding prominent stamens and pistils shooting upward from the center. These flowers are seen everywhere in Hawaii from backyards to resorts, to growing along the sides of the roadways.
Plumeria trees are as common on the Hawaiian Islands as palm trees and feature a range of rich colors including scarlet red to white with a soft yellow center. They offer a beautiful and sweet-smelling scent. It was said they were brought to the islands by a German botanist in 1860—today, they’re used to make leis for a celebration. On walks such as the Wailea Boardwalk on Maui, there’s a strong chance plumeria leis will be drying in the sun on rocks near the water, but if you’re lucky enough to receive a plumeria lei upon visiting Hawaii, don’t let it get tossed in the garbage. Instead, local ritual says the lei should be given back to Earth by hanging it from a tree, burying it, or burning it.
It’s known that ginger flowers can come in a wide array of shoes and colors, the torch ginger is exceptionally impressive, growing to a double-overhead height and spouting off a separate flowering stalk before busting out into plumy, bright-ruby petals. The flower is at its most beautiful right after it opens, but continues to evoke emotion even after the older petals begin to fall away.
Koʻoloaʻula is a critically endangered flowering shrub that’s endemic to Hawaii with the ability to reach heights of up to 10 feet. Even though the flowers can be hidden by the larger leaves, upon catching a glimpse, those who are observant can spot petals that almost appear like the hibiscus, most commonly the color red, but sometimes other shades of color. They’re rarer blooms, but this plant can be found in the dry forests of Lana’i, Maui, O’ahu, and Hawaii Islands.
Sophora chrysophylla, known as Mamane in Hawaiian, is also endemic to Hawaii—with the impressive ability to grow into a tall, towering plant reaching heights of up to 50 feet tall. Gaze at branches with a slight golden color and pea-shaped bright yellow flowers which form in clusters at the end of branches, kind of looking like butterflies. It prefers to grow in mesic and dry forests, and very rarely, wet forests—and its blooming time depends on its location. No matter where it grows, it generally blooms for a while.
Ohi’a Lehua is a flowering evergreen tree endemic to the six largest islands of Hawaii. It’s viewed by natives as sacred to Pele and Laka, the volcano and Hula goddesses. This hardy tree can grow anywhere between 65 and 85 feet tall when it’s happy with its conditions—and spectators can admire its beautiful blooms made up of a mass of distinctly colored red or yellow stamens. It’s one of the first plants to grow from new lava flows, found at sea level and up in high cloud forests. The red ohia is actually known as the “official flower” of The Big Island.
Where to See a Show of Spectacular Color
On Kauai, visit the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), McBryde and Allerton Gardens which is located on the South Shore, nestled in the picturesque, historic Lawa’i Valley where there are traditional Hawaiian archaeological sites suggesting this land once stood as a significant early settlement Polynesian voyagers who came to Hawaii.
At this enormous garden, guests will encounter the most extensive ex-situ collection of native Hawaiian flora in modern existence. There’s an extensive collection of more than 50 acres of diverse plant collections including palms, trees, and flowers that have been collected by experts from tropical regions across the globe and taken to the garden for research and cultivation. There are a few different tours offered for guests to either enjoy a self-guided exploration or a guided adventure, offered online and by appointment only.
Driving along the well-known sight of the palm-lined entrance to Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Gardens has been described as driving up into heaven. Visitors can explore this oasis of 400 acres in windward Oahu, open seven days a week for no charge, to experience “a peaceful refuge” set atop a mountainside. This garden in Kāneʻohe dates back to 1982, having first been designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection for Kāneʻohe. It features plantings from major tropical regions around the world which are grouped geographically including collections from the Philippines, Malaysia, Tropical America, India, Hawaii, Polynesia, and Africa.
Located on Waimea Valley Road, across from Waimea Bay, the lush, beautiful Waimea Valley is proud to be deeply rooted in authentic Hawaiian history, culture, spirituality, and tradition. It’s run by a non-profit organization that holds the title to the land and was created to nurture and care for the region. There are 52 themed botanical gardens at Waimea Valley, that nurture over 5,000 documented types of tropical and subtropical plants. Visitors can check out gardens representing the Ogasawara Islands, Central, and South America, Fiji, Guam, the Mascarene Islands, and the Hawaiian islands (including some that are only found in Hawaii)—many of which are rare and endangered. Spy gingers and heliconia, hibiscus hybrids, and be sure to visit the colorful “Aunty Coco’s Lei Garden,” which features plants that produce flowers, seeds, and leaves made for leis. It’s dedicated to the late Aunty Coco Leong, whose long-lasting legacy of educating people about Hawaiian culture has stood the test of time.
For those who prefer a more urban setting, there’s actually a garden located in bustling Honolulu just a few blocks from downtown called Foster Botanical Garden, where visitors can experience a revitalizing respite within an urban oasis in the city. Upwards of 75,000 visitors come to see the sights of these gardens each year, and film fan guests might recognize it as the setting of countless Hollywood films and TV shows. It’s the oldest of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens and hosts a seasoned collection of more than 10,000 species of plants. Some of the trees in the 14-acre garden date way back to the 1850s—and in 1988, this land was added to the Hawaii Register of Historic Places. Those who are interested in a guided tour can book an experience Mondays-Saturday at 1 p.m., or by individual appointment. There is a range of rare and endangered plants to encounter, including a Lyon orchid garden, a butterfly garden, a herb, and prehistoric garden, and even an economic garden that grows plants used to make medicine, food, fabrics, and dyes.
Haleakala National Park is located in the upcountry of Maui, to the southeastern coast. Haleakala means “house of the sun”—but although it’s primarily known for its impressive Haleakala Crater and exceptionally spectacular sunsets, this 10,023-foot volcano peak park offers so much more.
There are two separate areas—the Haleakala summit area, and the coastal Kipahulu area, which are accessible separately since they’re not connected. Its land spans more than 30,000 acres of space and features a wide variety of types of terrain. There are more than 850 species of plants found inside the park boundaries, and more than 400 of these species are either native or arrived on the islands without human intervention. Some of the unique plants found at the summit district include the yellow flowers of the non-native evening primrose, Nohoanu, which are small, silvery yellow geraniums, and the striking yellow Māmane.
The Big Island/Island of Hawaii
At just an infantile island age of 800,000 years old, the Island of Hawaii is the youngest of the Hawaiian archipelago. It’s also the biggest of the group, at 4,028 square miles (more than twice the size of all the other major islands combined!).
The Big Island’s official color is fiery red due to the presence of active volcanoes still spewing lava–and because it’s said to be where the fierce fire goddess Pele resides. The red ʻōhiʻa lehua flower is the island’s official flower since this hardy tree thrives in the crater of the active Kīlauea volcano where it has managed to adapt to actively grow out of the lava rock. Visit one of the multiple national parks on this large island to explore the native flora and fauna of its terrain.
In Autumn, beaches are quieter, there is less traffic downtown, and tourism highlights like Waipio Valley and the Hamakua Coast waterfalls will be lot less crowded, so why not?