Since yesterday was Mother’s Day, and last week my mother’s birthday, this article is for Mom, who passed away at home earlier this year.
I kept her bedroom, where she spent the majority of her time, always brimming with assorted orchids, for their dazzling longevity, and tuberose, for their celestial fragrance.
One day I purchased tuberose from a florist friend, who ended up generously giving me the entire bucket. I arranged several stalks for my mom’s bedroom and the remaining ones for her adjoining bathroom. That night, about 2 in the morning, I could hear stirring from her bedroom. Because she suffered previous falls, I bolted to her. With her diminished mobility, she was trying to secretly relocate the tuberose to the living room because its overwhelming scent had saturated her bedroom.
I totally underestimated the immense perfume they would generate that first night. My mother was embarrassed because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings by removing the tuberose. I was relieved and amused.
Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa) is kupaloke in Hawaiian. The Greek words "polios" and "anthos" mean "many flowers." The Latin derivative of tuberosa means "swollen" or "tuberous," for the roots or tubers. It’s a member of the family Agavaceae.
The night-blooming tuberose grows wild in Mexico and Central America. Ancient Aztec Indians called it omixochitl, or bone flower, which was propagated for its anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties. Commercial cultivation occurs here as well as in South Africa, Morocco, France, China and India, where tuberose is revered in its mythology and culture.
Tuberose is a perennial that prefers full sun. The bulbs should be planted in rich, moderately acidic, well-draining soil. It will also thrive in containers, but don’t mix it with other plants.
Elongated, lustrous green leaves are clustered at the plant’s base, with tinier, clasping leaves along the stem. Floral spikes bear tubular, creamy-white, waxy flowers. They bloom from the bottom toward the top.
It takes an incredible 3,600 pounds of flowers to produce 1 pound of pure tuberose oil. Because the flowers will not tolerate the extreme temperatures of water/steam distillation, a solvent is utilized. Solvent-derived oils are labeled an "absolute" by the perfume/aromatherapy industry.
Studies have demonstrated that inhaling tuberose decreases cortisol levels and, therefore, lowers stress.
Our new Miss Aloha Hula 2011, Tori Hulali Canha, chanted an oli exalting tuberose at the opening of her hula kahiko at the recent Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.
In our island landscape, I love how the vertical accent of tuberose delivers a stunning appearance en masse, or as a decorative border for the tropical garden.
Toward the end, my mother’s hearing and eyesight were severely depreciated but tuberose boosted her quality of life. I’m positive my mom has tuberose for herself in heaven.
Duane Choy is a native Hawaiian plant specialist. Email him at HanaHou@ecologyfund.net.