With the recent spotlight on the life of Princess Kai ulani, this article is dedicated to her favorite flower, the pikake. The word means "peacock" in Hawaiian — symbolic of the attachment the princess had with her avian pets.
Pikake is known outside of Hawaii as Arabian or Indian jasmine. In the Philippines, where it is the national flower, it is known as sampaguita. In China, the flower is processed as the primary component for jasmine tea.
Pikake (Jasminum sambac) is probably a native of India and a member of the olive family (Oleaceae). The perfumed blossoms grow on a hardy, drought-resistant shrub 2 to 3 feet wide and up to 6 feet tall. Growth is moderate during the hotter spring and summer months, but slows during cooler seasons.
Pikake can exhibit both bushy and viny growth features. The petite, cream-white flowers emerge at branch terminals singularly or clustered on new growth. Unopened buds are oval and star-patterned when open.
Hawaii is graced with four distinctive flower varieties. The single flower (pikake lahilahi) is the commercially propagated lei variety. A semidouble variety has elongated petals but is generally not used for lei-making because the bud stem cannot be pushed into the bud itself. The double-flowered rose pikake has rounded white petals but generates fewer flowers. A multiwhorled variety (pikake pupupu) features petals so compact it mimics a tiny, white carnation.
Pikake can be propagated by air layering or leafy stem cuttings dusted with root hormones. It will thrive in rich, silty clay or sandy loam soils. A soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is desirable. Organic matter like leaf mold, peat moss, compost or humus are ideal supplements.
Longer daylight and hot weather promote flower yield. Full sun with dry locations, like leeward, lowland areas, away from cooling mauka breezes, are optimum. Cool night temperatures below 70 degrees stunt flower size. Pikake is moderately tolerant of salt, but excessive wind may harm flowers.
The entire root zone should be watered and the soil allowed to dry between waterings. Avoid soggy conditions. Administer a 10-10-10 fertilizer or 10-30-10 with winter pruning, and feed two to three times the rest of the year. An alternative to granular fertilizer is coupling liquid fertilizer with irrigation. Diluted foliar fertilizer also can be added to pesticide spray applications.
Prune during the November-to-January period, and once or twice during the flowering months to induce a heavier flower set. The lateral branching promoted by pruning advances flowering since pikake only flowers at new growth terminal tips.
Pikake buds are harvested in the morning hours when flowers are bounteous with perfume. It is imperative that buds be white when plucked. Immature buds (light, creamy green-yellow), will not open and emit the intoxicating fragrance.
One of my fondest childhood sensations was the sweet, spicy pikake essence that saturated the summer night surrounding the Diamond Head portion of 22nd Avenue. On balmy evenings, the neighborhood mom-and-pop pikake growers rewarded everyone with the ambrosial aroma of their labors.
Duane Choy is a native Hawaiian plant specialist. Reach him at HanaHou@ecologyfund.net.