Elise et les iles de la Polynésie

The flower: TIARE TAHITI

Today, here is my blog post about the emblem of French Polynesia: the flower TIARE TAHITI. It’s a beautiful flower which has a heady perfume…

It’s rare that a flower is so deeply linked to a country, its people and their values but in Tahiti, the Tiare mā’ohi more commonly known as the Tiare Tahiti, is an essential element of the culture. The flower has become the country’s emblem, not only representing the land, but also its people who grow the flower on every island they set foot on.


But before expounding on the many attributes of this mythic flower, let us look for a moment at the original concept of the word Tiare. Today Tiare means “flower” in a general sense, in Tahitian. Without going too far into the complexities of linguistics, tī expresses a rise in, or strong presence of something and are means a fragrance, scent or perfume. It’s therefore not surprising that Polynesians put these two terms together to name one of their most precious gems – the flower, te tiare – as a strong or rising fragrance.


A favorite ornament and with multiple other uses, the Tiare Tahiti (or Tiare Mā’ohi) has become the emblem of French Polynesia. However the plant’s scientific name Gardenia Taitensis probably originated from Micronesia, a group of Pacific Ocean islands located between Indonesia and Philippines. During the great migratory voyages from Western to Eastern Polynesia, the people brought this extraordinary bush to plant wherever they landed. As the plant developed and acclimatized to new lands, it took on new properties so that now the flower can be considered endemic to our islands and different from its ancestors. Only in exceptional cases can the plant germinate from seed and its propagation relies almost exclusively on gardeners grafting it or planting it from clippings. Thanks to the horticultural savoir faire of the Polynesian people, the Tiare Tahiti has been able to flourish throughout the islands and now reigns over the land.

The Gardenia Taitensis is a beautiful bush that can grow up to six meters high in sandy soil; a heliophile, the plant likes to be in full-sun. Perfectly adapted to the Polynesian environment, the plant can be found on high islands like Tahiti, the Leeward Islands, Marquesas, Austral and Gambier but also the coral atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago. The Tuamotu atolls have been described as “poor and arid,” but the tumu tīare mā’ohi thrives there and some plants have been known to live for up to 100 years; the total absence of harmful parasites is notably beneficial to the bush.


The Gardenia Taitensis flowers year-round but it gives off more flowers during the Austral winter between the end of October and the end of May. During these abundant months, the time Tahitian’s call the Matāri’i i ni’a, colors around the island seem to explode, new green life is everywhere and the island blossoms with regeneration. At this time tiny Tiare mā’ohi are a sparkling with a luminous white that glow even at night during the new moon. Revelers dancing and singing during a ’upa’upa (small parties) can see them through the darkness. Day or night, the white stands out against the dark, shiny, oblong leaves. An unusual attribute of the plant is that flowers can have from five to eight petals even on the same plant. The flowers open at dusk and can remain open for several days without fading.

Tiare mā’ohi are harvested, or more correctly pāfa’i (pinched off), with two fingers (generally the thumb and the index finger). They are carefully chosen to make sure they are picked at the proper stage: not too open or too closed. Harvesting is done at around 5am or at the edge of dusk. For conservation purposes the flowers are delicately bunched together, sometimes in alternating directions. Once they are put in bunches, and often wrapped in Ti’ leaves (’autī in Tahitian) to keep them naturally fresh, the perfume and life energy (as has been said since ancient times) will be conserved for several days; also kept fresh are the flower’s suppleness and workability necessary to make leis and flower crowns. When kept under plastic wrap in the modern manner, these qualities are lessened.


But more than being a remedy, the Tiare mā’ohi is the queen of a slew of floral ornaments created by Polynesian people. Always considered as the most beautiful Tahitian flower, it was first reserved only for young girls and became thought of as the flower of lovers; those in love could understand the flower’s language more profoundly. Today the flower is tucked behind the ear – as a bud for men and open for women. A flower behind the left ear means the person is single, behind the right, they are taken. But no matter who wears the flower or how, it’s the ornament of choice of the entire country.

In ancient times the flower was also worn tucked behind the ear. The legend of the Gardenia Taitensis tells us that this incredible plant of fragrant flowers rose in the presence of the God Ātea and women were like little birds who harvested the flowers every day.

Photo: Bruce Soyez Bernard/Monoï Institute


Today Polynesians use Tiare Tahiti flowers in enormous quantities, especially during festivals such as the Heivā i Tāhiti or during private meetings and parties where many people where leis and flower crowns. Strung into large leis, Tiare mā’ohi are an important part of a welcoming ritual as an offering to a visitor from their host. Each guest is given this kind gift.

When a loved one passes away, the flowers are even more present. They beautify the dead, embalming them with eternal peace. In ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance), the flowers are used sometimes en masse to create outrageously beautiful costumes.

Because of all these uses, around 110 million Tiare Tahiti flowers are harvested each year from around the country – on average 300,000 per day. It’s a French Polynesian need to beautify the body and open the hearts of men and women who make the islands such warm and welcoming destinations!


Among the many uses of the Tiare Tahiti, we can’t forget French Polynesia’s signature mōno’i. This beauty oil softens the skin, helps maintain a healthy scalp and can be worked into the skin of new born babies with physical deformations; the expert and strong hands of the ancients could remodel the babies with frequent massage with warm mōno’i perfumed with Tīare mā’ohi.

With techniques handed down through generations, mōno’i Tiare Tahiti is made by hand by macerating a Tiare flower in coconut oil. The ancestral method consists of putting the flower petals in direct contact with the pulp of the freshly grated coconut. After being put out in the sun, the perfumed oil separates from the pulp.

Photo: F. Payet/Monoï Institute

Since 1992, the unique characteristics of Tahitian mōno’i have been guaranteed by a controlled origin name, much like Champagne and Bordeaux wines are given label exclusivity in France. The Tiare mā’ohi is harvested in its bud stage (’ūmoa) then macerated in coconut oil within 24 hours of being picked, latest time. The maceration is for a minimum 10 days. The Tiare Tahiti that are used must only be Gardenia Taitensis from Polynesia.

Source: Tahiti tourisme

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