A Perfect Specimen

Royal Poinciana - Flower
Royal Poinciana

“He lāʻau kū hoʻokahi, he lehua no Kaʻala. A lone tree, a lehua of Kaʻala.”
 This is a Hawaiian expression of admiration for an outstanding person, unequaled in beauty, wisdom, or skill.
‘Ōlelo No‘eau, Mary Pukui Bishop

Like an exceptional person, known for their unique individual qualities, a singular tree can stand as a focal point for a garden or landscaped property. Referred to as a specimen tree, it is in some way outstanding—in its shape, color, texture, or even fragrance. A specimen tree might be planted near a walkway, by a lake or pond, or outside a window where it can be most appreciated. The idea is to utilize a specimen tree to best give the garden or landscape a “sense of intention.”
So many of Hawai‘i’s trees can be specimen trees. Yellow, Pink, or Rainbow Shower Trees highlight homes and offices across the islands; stately Palms mark grand entrances or create a private oasis; tall Norfolk Pines, domed Monkeypod, flame-orange Royal Poinciana, Plumeria in multiple colors and the purple rain of Jacaranda give life and color to any landscape.


How to select a specimen tree

Of course everyone want trees and plants that they love because they are beautiful, perhaps reminding them of special places or memories. But it’s important to keep in mind that looks aren’t everything, and there is a lot to consider when choosing the perfect specimen. Let’s use as examples two of Hawai‘i Island’s favorite trees, the Royal Poinciana and the Plumeria.


Is the home in a dry region near the coast, or up in the cooler hills where there’s more precipitation? To keep specimen trees—and any plants—happy, know how much sunshine and how much rain they need, what elevation and what temperature they can tolerate, and whether or not they can stand up to the wind. Both Plumeria and Royal Poinciana can grow at sea level, in sandy soil, and in hot weather. With enough information, homeowners can set the intention for the garden: fruit, fragrant, flashy color or monochrome, native* plants or exotic specimens from other places.

Blooming Cycle

On the Continent, specimen trees like evergreens are chosen because they are attractive year-round. In Hawai’i, where plants are continually green and growing, any number of trees and shrubs can be used as beautiful specimen trees.
The spectacular Royal Poinciana or “flame tree” grows tall, spreading into a well-shaped canopy with some pruning. In the summer months, it explodes in breathtaking red-orange flowers. The popular Plumeria, a favorite for lei flowers, gives fragrant blossoms from creamy white to dark red, from early spring through October. In fall and winter months however, it goes dormant, losing its flowers and leaves and taking on a barren look.

Royal Poinciana Tree
Royal Poinciana Tree


A specimen should be in scale with the size of the property, buildings, and other features. Royal Poinciana, growing up to 50 feet in height with a wide, spreading canopy may be well-suited for a property with large landscaping areas, where the shorter Plumeria works with smaller properties, as commercial landscape trees, or almost anywhere.

Rubbish (ahem)

A specimen tree, designed and placed to be a focal point of the landscape, needs to consistently look its best. So trees that drop leaves, pods and other materials that have to be cleaned up frequently, may not be the best choice. And while Plumeria is about average in the rubbish department, Royal Poinciana, are notoriously “trashy.” And although its flowers and foliage are breathtaking, it also grows long, green seed pods, which turn brown and fall off, requiring constant maintenance.


Most trees and plants growing in Hawai‘i were brought from somewhere else. Plumeria’s roots are in Central America and the Caribbean, and Royal Poinciana is native to Madagascar. Interestingly, both were introduced to the islands by the same man, German botanist Dr. William Hillebrand, in the 19th Century.
Monkeypod, another popular landscape tree, traveled from Panama with businessman Peter Brinsmade in 1847. It’s generally thought that Jacaranda were brought by Portuguese workers on the ranches of upcountry Maui in the 1900’s. The Lahaina Banyan tree, now known around the world, was brought by missionaries from India and given to the Maui sheriff who planted it. The Lahaina Banyan is now the oldest banyan in Hawaii, and one of the oldest in the United States.

The Lahaina Banyan, pre-2023 fire


Palm. Of all the countless varieties of palm trees proudly displayed on Hawai‘i’s landscapes, only one species, the loulu, is native to the islands. (according to Maui Nui Botanical Gardens). Even the iconic coconut palm was one of the “canoe plants” brought by Polynesian voyagers. Gardeners and landscapers today are recognizing not only the cultural importance of native, indigenous and endemic plants, but their value and utility as outstanding specimen trees. 

Loulu (pritchardia martii) By David Eickhoff from Pearl City, Hawaii, USA licensed under CC BY 2.0

‘Ōhi‘a is endemic to the six largest islands of Hawai‘i and is the most common native Hawaiian tree, comprising 80% of Hawaii’s native forests. In legend it is a favorite of the volcano goddess, Pele, and—until recently—was fashioned into lei for numerous hula troupes and schools. However, it is currently threatened by a very dangerous fungal pathogen killing thousands of trees on Hawai‘i Island.

The conservation group Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death (same name as the disease) fights to save ‘Ōhi‘a with education and boots-on-the -ground training. They actually encourage the planting of ‘Ōhi‘a seeds and saplings because they can’t become infected, and they can help perpetuate the species. That said, landscapers are warned not to transport forest ‘Ōhi‘a from one area to another, and to clean boots, vehicles, and all gear after a trip to the forest. ‘Ōhi‘a cannot travel between islands, and extreme care must be used to maintain ROD. Reputable, professional nurseries and landscapers are highly recommended.


Wiliwili is another native/endemic tree that makes an attractive specimen. They reach about 20-30’ fully grown, and bloom with deep red-orange flowers. Wiliwili requires very little water once established, so it is an excellent choice for xeriscaping. Traditionally, its lightweight wood was used for surfboards. A large dry forest just outside of Waikoloa Village contains numerous Wiliwili and other native/indigenous trees, lovingly maintained by volunteers.

Wiliwili – by Forest & Kim Starr, licensed under CC BY 3.0

Hala makes a striking specimen tree. Its trunk is footed by air roots, and its crown is an explosion of long, pointed leaves and round, segmented fruit, making the tree seem like a cluster of pineapples. Hala, Pandanus tectoris, is a very important tree to Hawaiian culture. Its leaves are dried and stripped into ribbons of varying thicknesses, depending on their use as mats, fans, bracelets and fine quality hats. The fruit yields individual sections or keys which turn yellow when mature, and can be made into ceremonial lei or used as paint brushes.

Pandanus tectorius – by Forest & Kim Starr, licensed under CC BY 3.0 US

‘Ulu, breadfruit, is a large, beautiful tree with a distinctive green leaf and an abundance of round, edible fruit. ‘Ulu grows across all of Polynesia and Oceania and most likely came to Hawai‘i with early canoe voyagers. The subject of various stories and legends, it is an excellent specimen tree that will reward you (and your neighbors) with healthy food for many years.

Ulu (breadfruit)

Plant Pono

To learn more about landscaping in Hawai‘i, including native and non-native species, invasive species, pests, and more, we encourage you to check out Plant Pono. They also offer downloadable planting guides and free training programs:  www.PlantPono.org.

*Native plants occur naturally in a particular region without any human help. Indigenous plants are native plants that originate from a specific geographic area (although they might grow in other places). Endemic plants occur naturally in a specific area and nowhere else.