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There’s a story hidden in everything around us, and like many other societies, Hawaii’s moolelo (stories) have become an integral part of the culture today. They define the place and its people and give meaning to everyday occurrences. One such story brings light to a common beach plant that many overlook. Different versions of this story exists, but I’ll share one that I learned growing up: Naupaka, a common Hawaii plant that has a not-so-common story to tell.
In ancient times, there was a beautiful princess named Naupaka. Villagers noticed she looked very sad and asked her what was wrong. She told them that she had fallen in love with a man named Kaui, who was a commoner from the village below. Back then, Hawaiian tradition strictly forbade those of royal blood to marry people from common decent. The kupuna (elderly) advised them to take a long journey to a faraway heiau (sacred place), where they should pray and ask the high priest for guidance.
Naupaka and Kaui traveled together for days, over the mountains and through the forests. When they arrived at the temple – exhausted but filled with hope – the young couple told their story. The priest shook his head and explained that he could not help them. The Hawaiian gods must decide. Soon the sky darkened and a storm arrived. This was a sign from the gods disapproving their relationship; the young couple knew what they had to do.
Naupaka took the white flower in her hair and tore it in half. She placed one half in Kaui’s hand and told him to return to the seashore. She would live a lonely life in the mountains. A half of the Naupaka flower tells us hearts have been broken.
Today you may notice the Naupaka flowers bloom in halves. It is said that when the flower from the mountain (Naupaka Kuahiwi) joins the seashore Naupaka (Naupaka Kahakai), both Hawaiian lovers are together once again.
Naupaka typically grow up to 10 feet tall and six to 15 feet wide. The plant has small clusters of small white flowers with light purple streaks. You may see them on almost every island. On Oahu, they can be found along the ocean near the Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki Aquarium and Kailua Beach. Or up in the mountains in Manoa Valley.