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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Hawai'i Gardens
Flowering kwai fah notable for its fragrance

Having recently moved, I have few plants in my yard and am really missing having them around. Happily, I have many new neighbors who love plants, and I enjoy theirs vicariously.

Our new mauka neighbor has one of the most onoliciously fragrant plants in the world, and she kindly has it placed right next to the fence we share. When I need a fragrance fix I go over and catch a whiff of the plant, which is called kwai fah. So awesome!

Clusters of tiny white, four- petaled blossoms emit a fragrance that is indescribable. What does it smell like? "Kwai fah," I lippily reply. There are many fragrances in this world, especially from the wonderful plants we can grow in Hawai'i, and each perfume is unique.

The Wahiawa Botanical Garden, one of five city botanical gardens where I work, was given a nice potted kwai fah. Supervisor Judy Dragon and I were trying to decide the best place to display it so our garden visitors could enjoy it to the fullest. I inhaled deeply and told her that I needed to write an article about this wonderful plant and did she have any horticultural insights?

Dragon said she grew up in the southern United States and they grow it there, too. There, they call it "tea osmanthus."

Scientists call this fragrant member of the olive family Osmanthus fragrans. You can see that Latin is not that hard — see the fragrans part of the species name? It describes the highly fragrant nature of the flower (even botanists enjoy unique plant fragrances).

Kwai fah is native to China, the Himalayas and Japan. The flowers are sometimes added to tea to give it a unique flavor and fragrance. You see the plant in family gardens and in Chinese temples. The Kwan yin temple, which is adjacent to the Foster botanical garden parking lot entrance on Vineyard Street, has some nice big pots of it in their entry courtyard.

The leaves look like those of olives and even of olopua (Osmanthus sandwicensis), our native Hawaiian olive.

The flowers come in clusters of intense yet subtle fragrance. Fruits are blue and are rarely seen in Hawai'i. Male and female flowers are on separate plants.

Though the leaf tips may be brown, there are sometimes few leaves and the whole plant can look straggly and not too happy. Yet they usually have flowers. It could be that our subtropical Hawaiian climate is not what this Chinese plant really needs to grow at its best. Dragon says they get quite large and look healthy in the South, where it gets both hotter in the summer and colder in the winter than here in Hawai'i. The American South may be a more similar climate to the plant's native China.

At any rate, kwai fah is a great plant for Hawai'i gardens, especially for those of us who love fragrant plants.

Ask for it at your favorite garden shop or landscape nursery. It is also one to try to find at plant sales.

Heidi Bornhorst is director of Honolulu's botanical gardens — Foster, Lili'uokalani, Wahiawa, Koko Crater, Ho'omaluhia.

E-mail her at islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com or write to her care of The Advertiser Homestyle section, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802.