One of Hawaii’s most famous legends is built around naupaka, a shrub found in the mountains or near the beach. The flower’s unique appearance—it resembles a half-flower, with petals missing—caused early Hawaiians to believe it was the incarnation of an ancient native separated from her lover.
In ancient times, one version goes, there was a beautiful Hawaiian princess known as Naupaka. One day, the villagers noticed that Naupaka looked very sad. They told her parents, who approached Naupaka and asked her what was troubling her.
“I have fallen in love with a man named Kaui,” replied the princess. “But Kaui is not of noble birth—he is a commoner.” According to Hawaiian tradition, it was strictly forbidden for members of royalty to marry people from the common ranks.
Distressed, Naupaka and Kaui traveled long and far, seeking a solution to their dilemma. They climbed up a mountain to see a kahuna who was staying at a heiau (temple). Alas, he had no clear answer for the young lovers. “There is nothing I can do,” he told them, “but you should pray. Pray at this heiau.”
So they did. And as they prayed, rain began to fall. Their hearts torn by sorrow, Naupaka and Kaui embraced for a final time. Then Naupaka took a flower from her ear and tore it in half, giving one half to Kaui. “The gods won’t allow us to be together,” she said. “You go live down by the water, while I will stay up here in the mountains.”
As the two lovers separated, the naupaka plants that grew nearby saw how sad they were. The very next day, they began to bloom in only half flowers.
There are different versions of the naupaka legend, but all carry the same unhappy theme: lovers that are separated forever, one banished to the mountains, the other to the beach.
About the Plant
Legends aside, the naupaka (Scaevola sencea) is one of Hawaii’s most common beach plants. There are nine different species of naupaka, which typically grow up to 10 feet tall and six to 15 feet wide. The plant has large leaves with flowers in small clusters. The flowers are typically white with purplish streaks. The fruits are white.
On Oahu, naupaka can be seen at popular visitor sites such as Ala Moana Park, the Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo, and Sandy Beach.