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Fr. Polynesia Flora


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Fr. Polynesia Flora

The tiare flower, a member of the gardenia family, and intoxicatingly fragrant. The plants in French Polynesia come from many parts of the world. When the earliest human migrants arrived in what is today the Society Islands of French Polynesia, they found volcanic islands whose steep slopes were covered mostly in ferns. Along the shores grew luxuriant vegetation, but only two flowering plants: the tiare (below), a species of gardenia, and the pua.

The food crops that are so prolific today were all imported, first by the Maori peoples themselves who brought coconut palms, mape (Tahitian chestnut), breadfruit trees, and the yam.  Migrants stopping in New Guinea brought with them fe'i and me'i bananas and the auti, a plant whose root contains 20% sugar.

Fragrant flower of the pamplemouse (Tahitian grapefruit) tree. In the mid-1800's an English surgeon living in Tahiti introduced cocoa trees, mimosas, mandarins, jasmine, Bougainvillea, and hibiscus.  Other settlers and seafarers of the same era brought lantana plants and plumeria (frangipani). Many other food crops were introduced in the late 1880's by a French pharmacist in the Marines who had been charged with introducing productive plants to French Polynesia.  He created a garden with 1500 plants including bamboos, eucalyptus, rubber, and traveler's palm trees. He is credited with bringing vanilla to the islands as well, now a major cash crop.  The last great importer of plants was an eccentric American, Harrisson Smith, who created a garden with over 250 new species including beautiful ones like the flamboyant trees, and fruit trees such as the local pamplemousse, or grapefruit.

Beautiful red hibisus, one of many hybrids in the islands. Today, a stroll down any village street in the Tuamotus, Marquesas, or Society Islands is like walking through a tropical garden. The French Polynesians keep immaculate yards, raked and swept daily. On the small islands, the garden refuse is burned. On the larger islands piles of yard sweepings can be seen lying by the road ready for pick up by the island refuse trucks.

On the steep forested slopes of Moorea, Tahiti, Huahine and Raiatea the Tahitian chestnut, also known as the mape, grows to over 100 feet.  It is characterized by its fluted shape, expanding to creeping roots, similar to a ficus tree.  The pin-pong ball sized chestnuts are edible when roasted, but we never got to try any.

The "mape" or Tahitian chestnut is one of the primary forest trees.
Coconut palms are found throughout the islands, and often at surprising elevations. A thousand years ago there were no coconut palms in Tahiti.  Today, coconuts (left) are commercially grown on all the islands, the meat dried to create copra which is used in soaps, perfumes, and cosmetics.  The fresh nut supplies water, milk and edible pulp.  The heart is used in salads.  The trunk can be used for building wood and the fronds for woven mats. The noni fruit is harvested commercially and used for cosmetics, shampoo, and skin lotions
The noni plant (right) is a newer commercial venture in the islands.  Most noni fruits are sent to Utah where they are processed into medicines, shampoos, and skin aids.  The Polynesians use the viscous squeezings for shampoo and digestive aids.
The flowers of the ixora (Rubiaceae) can be either red, pink, white or yellow. These clusters can be up to 8 or 9 inches across. Introduced from Indonesia, this is now a common ornamental throughout the S. Pacific and the Caribbean.
Fragrant Butterfly ginger. We found this specimen in the botanical garden on Raiatea Two members of the ginger family (left and right), with very different flowers.  On the left, the Butterfly Ginger is sweetly pungent.  In the evening the flower is especially fragrant, giving it its Latin genus name Hedychium, the Greek for "sweet snow".  The Red, or Torch Ginger (right) originates in Malaysia, but is now widespread throughout the tropics.  The plants display tall red flowers without fragrance almost year-round. Beautiful torch ginger breightens the dark forest on Tahiti.
A member of the banana family, this unusual heliconia (left) is call the Parrot's Plantain because of its exotic inflorescence. It comes from Guayana and Brazil, and grows up to 1 meter high.
The Pachystachys plant (right) is known for its bright yellow heart-shaped bracts arranged precisely in four rows. The small white flowers are not shown here, but extend from the axils of the bracts, with a distinct upper and lower lip. this is originally from the American tropics.

Pods of the Shaving Brush tree.

Mary (right) is holding the flower and seed pod of the "Shaving Brush" tree, so named for the feathery flowers which spring forth in bright pink.  This one was on the shores of Moorea.
One of our favorite tropical trees with fragrant flowers is the frangipani, or plumeria (left).  The flowers can be white and yellow, like this one, or a rich pink and orange.  In French Polynesia they are commonly worn in the hair or made into flower necklaces.
This showy Clerodendron (right) called the Pagoda Plant, is a native of SE Asia. We found it growing along roadside gardens and in the horticultural college grounds on Moorea.
Two more glorious tropical flowers (left and right).  We have no ID for the one of the left which we saw at the Botanical Garden in Raiatea.  The tree on the right is known to us from the Caribbean, but we no longer have the ID book aboard to find its name!


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