Hawaiian Honey: The Flower Behind the Flavor

By Katie Young Yamanaka
Photo courtesy of via flickr.

Photo courtesy of Joel via flickr.

If you’ve ever tasted Hawaiian honey, you may have wondered where the distinct flavor comes from. This is a story about the ‘ohi‘a lehua blossom, the flower behind the flavor.

The ‘ohi‘a lehua can be found throughout the Hawaiian Island chain but is perhaps most abundant on the Big Island where it is designated as the island’s official flower.

Photo courtesy of via flickr.

Photo courtesy of Angi English via flickr.

It is typically the first plant to grow on new lava fields and can be found in bloom as a tiny shrub or a lofty 100-foot tree.

The Legend of the Lehua

Photo courtesy of via flickr.

Painting of the goddess Pele by Herb Kane at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Visitor Center. Photo courtesy Prayitno of via flickr.

According to Hawaiian legend, a young man named ‘Ohi‘a and a beautiful young woman named Lehua were in love. However, the fire goddess Pele wanted ‘Ohi’a for herself. When he refused, she flew into a jealous rage and turned him into an ugly tree.

Lehua pleaded for Pele to turn ‘Ohi’a back into a man, but nothing could squelch Pele’s fury. The other gods felt sorry for Lehua and so they turned her into a beautiful flower and placed her on the ‘Ohi’a tree.

Photo courtesy of via flickr.

Beautiful lehua blossoms grace the ‘ohi‘a tree branches. Photo courtesy of Frank Hamm via flickr.

Legend has it that if a Lehua blossom is plucked from the tree, rain will fall from the sky symbolic of Lehua’s tears since she cannot bear to be separated from her true love.

A Beautiful Flower

Photo courtesy of via flickr.

Photo courtesy of Caleb Slemmons via flickr.

The branches of the tree are twisted and scaly (this comes as the tree ages), but the blossoms are beautiful — delicate threads connect in rounded, vibrant bursts of red, and yellow, most commonly, but also appear in white, salmon, orange and pink on rare occasions. The flowers are delicate and fuzzy, and resemble an impressive aerial firework.

A Plant of Many Products

The scientific name for the plant is Metrosideros polymorpha guad, belonging to the Myrtle family. The dense wood of the tree, while not pretty to look at in its natural state, is used for all sorts of useful and beautiful things, including house flooring and furniture, temple images, spears, poi pounding boards and more.

The beauty of the delicate blooms are showcased woven into haku lei (a braided lei of flowers and ferns that is worn on the head for hula performances and on special occasions in Hawaii.)

Lehua, the Source of Hawaiian Honey

Wasabi Tours offers a honey tasting tour at Big Island Bees.

Honey tasting at Big Island Bees as part of their Historic Kona and Farm Tour. Photo courtesy of Wasabi Tours.

‘Ohi‘a lehua are the source of delicious honey cultivated on the island by bee farmers like Captain Cook Honey, Ltd., and offered up in raw, organic form by companies like Big Island Bees.

The bees are actually transported to the middle of ‘ohi‘a lehua forests, situated on tens of thousands of acres in arid areas like South Kona and South Kohala. The bees are set loose, capture the pollen from the bright Lehua blossoms and return it to the hive.

This popular varietal of honey is mild and creamy with a distinct flavor and smell. In its raw form, you can taste the source from where it came — as it is not filtered and cooked down like typical store-bought honeys — making it a precious and unique commodity.

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