Did you know that grass produces flowers? That bougainvillea flowers are not really flowers? That frangipani, multicolored hibiscus, and even the famous Tiare Tahiti did not originate in French Polynesia?
These previously accepted notions deserve some explanation. First, here are some fundamentals to remember or to learn: Flowers stem from flowering plants, otherwise known as angiosperms by botanists. Conifers, ferns, mosses and other lichens do not actually possess flowers. Flowers constitute a major advancement in the evolution of plants since they assemble all the reproductive organs to allow many species an interaction with animals and/or insects for pollination (stamens are the male part and the pistil is the female part). Usually, plants that are pollinated by animals (birds, bats, or insects such as bees) produce the most beautiful flowers that people notice and admire due to their colors, shapes, and perfumes. The presence of nectar also determines which types of pollinating animals they attract. Further, other flowering plants that have adopted alternate strategies for pollination, such as through the wind (called anemophily), have not developed remarkable flowers attractive to animals or humans. These include most grasses (such as Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae) that many people mistakenly believe do not produce flowers
Conversely, some organs often perceived to be flowers, are not. Relatively common in a French Polynesian landscape, the bougainvillea is a typical example, since its modified leaves, called bracts by botanists, harbor bright colors typical of the genus Bougainvillea. Its flowers are small and yellowish and colored leaves keep them hidden at the ends of branches. The same applies to the Wild Poinsettia (Euphorbia cyathophora) whose bracts are richly brocaded in red, so its green flowers go unnoticed… French Polynesia, notably Tahiti and the other Society Islands, is renowned for its luxurious vegetation and the presence of flowers all year long. This reputation is due not only to the abundance of flowers in Tahiti, but also to their rarity in temperate countries from where most foreign visitors arrive. Indeed, the climate of the Society Islands is considered moist tropical. Although the annual cycle is split between a rather hot and humid season and a rather cool and dry season, temperatures and rainfall throughout the year are very favorable to the development of vegetation and flowering. On the other hand, in Europe, North America, Japan, New Zealand, or Southern Australia, the climate is much more temperate with a distinct cold season in which temperatures often fall below freezing. Rainfall is either scantier or unevenly distributed throughout the year, two very limiting factors for the growth of vegetation and blooms during much of the year. Moreover, the flora of temperate countries is largely comprised of flowering plants pollinated by the wind, and therefore do not produce flowers that attract animals, or that humans consider spectacular, much unlike French Polynesia, where species in which the wind disperses the pollen are uncommon
FONDNESS FOR NOVELTY AND THE LOVE OF PLANTS
One must not forget that most of the flowers that visitors to French Polynesian islands notice belong to species introduced by man. They were selected because of their large, colorful flowers and vastly fragrant perfume. Indeed, French Polynesians are astute gardeners who love plants and new ideas. They have successively introduced and acclimatized hundreds of ornamental plants for more than a hundred years, copying Western botanists from the 19th to early 20th centuries, such as the famous work of Harrison Smith, who developed the Botanical Gardens at Papeari in Tahiti, now named after him. The abundance of species and cultivars (a plant variety that has been produced or maintained in cultivation by selective breeding), such as hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.), frangipani (Plumeria spp.), bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spp.), anthurium plants (Anthurium spp.), birds of paradise (Heliconia spp.), jasmine (Jasminum spp.) or even the ixora shrubs (Ixora spp.) are evidence of this desire for flowers and novelties. Thus, flowers that are admired today in French Polynesian gardens are essentially plants that have been introduced since the time of European contact and the arrival of explorers in the late 18th century. Botanists call these plants the modern introductions
However, it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, many plants cultivated in gardens or close to the fare (Tahitian word for house) provided flowers for necklaces or crowns, or to be simply worn in the hair or behind an ear. The two most commonly known species, the Tiare Tahiti (Gardenia taitensis) and the local red hibiscus, or ‘aute (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) are still largely cultivated for their decorative qualities, yet many visitors are not aware that they have always been used for medicinal purposes. Surprisingly, although these two plants are typical symbols of French Polynesia, they did not originate here! They are among about 80 other plants species that comprise Polynesian introductions. They were integrated into the flora of different islands during Polynesian migrations that took place between the end of the first millennium and the end of the 18th century. Most of these species consist of intentional introductions of useful plants (food, medicines, dyes, and fiber crops), while others are unintentional (sticky seeds, seeds hidden in the soil or on other vegetation or animals). Hence, it is possible to classify them as Polynesian weeds (which do not necessarily lack purpose). Tiare Tahiti is therefore not endemic (a term that classifies a plant as native and particular to a given biogeographic region, and often restricted to a specific area) to Tahiti or French Polynesia
Tiare Tahiti consists of a species introduced by early Polynesians starting from its original site on raised limestone formations in Vanuatu, as well as in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Its Latin name, Gardenia taitensis, indicates the place where botanists first observed the flower, and where it is the most cultivated in the world, including among several cultivars. Another local plant with large tubular flowers of a whitish to yellowish color and having a pleasant fragrance still puzzles botanists. Indeed, the pua is a native tree (native meaning not introduced by man) that can be often seen in the Tahitian mountains in its wild form (Fagraea berteroana var. berteroana). It is disseminated by fruit-eating birds (frugivores). However, there is a cultivated form at a low altitude with larger flowers that are even more heavily perfumed, called pua no’ano’a (Fagraea longituba). This could be a modern introduction cultivar or one that Polynesians introduced via Samoa or Tonga, where this tree is highly valued and cultivated
Tahitian forests have hidden treasures that are both decorative and cultural, and that deserve to be showcased during this era in which flora is becoming homogenized from one island to another, from one country to another, from one continent to another. Indeed, beyond preconceived notions about tiny flowers with minimal coloring or perfume, some native or endemic species present undeniable decorative potential, as well as possessing a botanical history or traditional usage that adds to their cultural depth. The genus Ixora, with its 20 to 25 shrubs endemic to French Polynesia, grows in all types of environments (raised atolls, dry forests, moist forests, and cloud forests), and would be a viable candidate. Polynesian ixora flowers are usually very fragrant in comparison to introduced species, and their colors vary from the purest whites to the most intense pinks. Coastal species may be preferred for low altitudes, coastal plains, or for relatively dry low slopes, such as the beach morning glory, or pohue tatahi (Ipomoea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis). There are also several varieties of sea lettuce or naupata (Scaevola taccada), some of which produce white or purple flowers, or wild jasmine or tafifi (Jasminum didymum). There is the climbing plant tutae pua’a (Mucuna gigantea and M. sloanei), which has stinging pods containing beautiful seeds, or even the pandanus or fara (Pandanus tectorius) of which only the male plants produce very fragrant and imposing white inflorescences called hinano
Throughout the valleys or wetter areas, or at higher elevations, the motu’u shrub (Melastoma denticulatum), native cousin of the invasive Miconia (Miconia calvescens), can be tested in addition to the pua mentioned earlier. Also, there is the herbaceous maupo (Dianella adenanthera) that produces bluish-purple berries, the Tahitian blueberry ‘opu’opu (Vaccinium cereum) with its edible fruit, or the delicate fuchsia (Fuchsia cyrtandroides) that is endemic to Tahiti and very isolated from its closest cousins in New Zealand and South America. Thus, we can only hope that the 21st century brings the return of local, specific, and endemic flowers to line the sides of the roads and embellish French Polynesian gardens.
This would reflect the uniqueness of Tahiti and the French Polynesian islands, while reconnecting the population through plants that are common or unique, aesthetic or historic, useful or part of a cultural and natural legacy