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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

Hawai'i Gardens
Pak lan as fragrant by every other name

By Heidi Bornhorst

Pak lan is one of those old fashioned trees that we all love to just smell. The perfume is awesome and unique. It is highly prized by many. Chinese people all over the world love this plant and have taken it to tropical places where they live. Pak lan means "white orchid" or "white flower." It is native to the Indonesian island of Java.

The pak lan tree is known by several names. Tough, durable and fragrant, the pak lan also may be grown successfully in a pot.

Master Gardener Landscaping

I was talking to a new friend who is originally from Taiwan. The first tree she planted in front of her new home, way up in the valley in Pauoa, was a pak lan. The fragrance and simple green grace of the leaves reminded her of the home and garden she had left behind. Plant and flower fragrances are like that. They can evoke strong memories in all of us.

This is a nice flower to pick as a bud and wear in your hair. The petals are fragile, but the scent is strong. The bud is white and pointed and about two inches long. The buds grow in clusters at the tips of the branches, nested amidst the leaves.

Known as Michelia alba to scientists, pak lan has many other names: white champak; miulana ke'o ke'o (ke'oke'o means white in Hawaiian). "Pakalana" is an older name for this plant, but it was later applied to the citrus-scented, celadon-flowered vine and lei that we love and call pakalana today; they are not related.

Look closely at the flowers of pak lan, at the way the petals are arranged around the greenish pistil. There are numerous white petals on display once the flower opens. It looks like a mini-magnolia. Botanists recognize this as we do, and place it in the magnolia family, Magnoliaceae.

The tree has a pleasing round shape and grows to about 30 feet. It is a handsome tree with pointed, wavy-edged, glossy green leaves. Just looking at the tree gives you a refreshing feeling and when you breathe deeply of the perfume you are transported to a fragrant land far away.

There is also a yellow-orange flowered species, Michelia champaca or orange champak, which is related and also has a wonderful scent. Other names for it are: wong lan, mulang, mulana, miulana melemele, (melemele is "golden" in Hawaiian). The orange champak is native to the Himalayas and does well in Hawai'i.

You can find pak lan at your favorite landscape nursery, or have your local garden center special order one for you. Once you know what it looks like, you will notice it growing in old kama'aina gardens, in Chinatown and near temples. There is a nice one on the grounds of the Kwan Yin temple on Vineyard Boulevard, which is just at the entry of the parking lot for Foster Botanical Garden.

Pak lan is a tough and durable tree. Give it good drainage, as much sun as possible for maximum flowering and water the young newly planted tree regularly to get it established in the ground. You can also grow and bloom it in a pot. The Garden Club of Hawai'i recently had a large flower show at the Art Academy. One awesome plant in the fragrant blooming category was grown by Cecelia Doo and her husband Gene Wai. I picked her brain for how she had gotten every branch in the large potted pak lan to bloom at once. She told me that about three months before the show she fertilized it with super bloom (10-60-10) every week. This and good luck helped the plant be floriferous and gorgeous.

Heidi Bornhorst directs Honolulu's five botanical gardens.