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Features | The Urban Gardener

Fragrant pakalana’s beauty threatened by wind and salt


Personally, pakalana — also known as Chinese violet — is synonymous with Valentine’s Day because it was the favorite flower of my first valentine.

It’s thought that pakalana was introduced to Hawaii by immigrants from southern China between 1823 and 1864. Pakalana (Telosma cordata) is also named fragrant telosma, Tonkin creeper, cowslip creeper, Chambangi, Fragancia nocturna and Parfum nocturne.

The plant is an evergreen, woody vine, ranging in height from about 6 to 10 feet. The slightly fuzzy, yellow-green stems bear smooth, heart-shaped leaves. The golden-green, short-tubed flowers have five petals and grow in clusters. They are extremely aromatic and turn orange with maturity.

Propagate pakalana by seeds, long, woody cuttings or air layering. Plants prefer a dry, sunny habitat at lower elevation, with organically rich and well-drained soil. Water deeply once or twice a week. Fertilize every four months. Pruning frail, spindly growth during winter invigorates cultivation and will encourage greater flower yields when warm weather arrives.

Pakalana is intolerant to wind and salt. It does not enjoy competition with other vinelike plants. A supportive platform or trellis promotes fresh growth and easier flower harvesting. Growth is vigorous through late spring and summer, and wanes leading to winter. Flower fragrance is fervid at night with high humidity.

Research on Hawaii-grown pakalana has revealed 43 active compounds conveying the blossom’s characteristic scent. Pakalana lei were one of the preferred lei sold before World War II at the Honolulu Harbor port, where Matson Co. luxury liners docked and unloaded passengers.

Blossoms are usually strung in the single-strand, end-to-end kui style. Numerous strands are also woven and intertwined collectively. Pakalana is ravishing when strung in round lei poepoe.

In Southeast Asia, flowers are stir-fried (especially with eggs) or boiled in soup for consumption. Nutritionally, the flowers are rich in carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins A and C. Flowers are sold in bundles wrapped in banana leaves.

"Ka Nae Pakalana" and "Lei Pakalana" are prominent Hawaiian songs exalting pakalana.

Pakalana has a classic, traditional fragrance, impeccably coupled with the romanticism of Valentine’s Day.

Duane Choy is a native Hawaiian plant specialist. Reach him at


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