Hawaiian Nature Name: Lehua

lehua, hawaii, name, plant, nature, flowerThe Hawaiian name Lehua (pronounced leh-HOO-ah) refers to the showy flower of the ‘ōhi’a lehua plant, Metrosideros polymorpha. The flower’s petals are very small, but its stamens are long and typically bright red.

The plant is endemic to the Hawaiian islands and has great cultural significance among Hawaiians. The word lehua refers not just to the flower, for instance, but also (figuratively) to various types of people: “warrior, beloved friend or relative, sweetheart, expert.” The plant even has its own creation myth: the goddess Pele created the plant by transforming human lovers Ohia and Lehua into the tree and the blossom, respectively.

This cultural importance no doubt stems from the plant’s ecological importance. The ‘ōhi’a lehua is a keystone species in Hawaii that’s often the first to colonize barren lava. The adaptations that allow for this include: year-round flowering, lightweight seeds, roots adept at growing vertically (i.e., in cracks and fissures), and the plant’s ability to close its stomata when volcanic gases are around — to hold its breath when the air turns toxic, in other words.

So Lehua, like other flower names, refers to an object of beauty…but this particular object of beauty is also a genuine symbol of concepts like resilience and adaptation. Which makes Lehua rather unique among flower names, I think.

What are your thoughts on the name Lehua?

(The photo is of a young ‘ōhi’a lehua inside the Kīlauea Iki pit crater, which my husband and I visited a few years ago on a trip to Hawaii. That particular lava flow happened in 1959.)

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