Nature: The Color Purple

This month’s botanical forecast: violet explosions of Jacaranda mimosifolia.
photo: Gerald D. Carr

When the Jacaranda trees burst into bloom with arresting bluish-purple flowers at this time of year, they get your attention–you get in your car to follow the purple. You may not have looked twice at these trees while they were bare and leafless. You may have appreciated the fern-like, feathery green leaves that make them beautiful shade trees along roadsides.

But when the 40 to 90 violet, two-inch, bell-shaped flowers pop into bloom on each of the branch tips they are no longer background scenery. Multiply this by all the branches on the tree, and you’ve got a significant riot of purple. When the leaves reappear, they soften the blast of color as they intensify its beauty.

Introduced to Hawai’i in the early 1900s, the trees have had a century to find their niche–or for humans to plant them in botanical gardens and private collections. The jacaranda genus belongs to a family of showy, introduced ornamentals around the Islands that get our attention for either their flowers or seed pods. Familiar members of this plant family (Bignoniaceae) include the cold tree, pink tecoma tree, trumpet vine, cat’s claw climber, african tulip tree, sausage tree and the gourd-like calabash tree (la’amia, whose dry, woody shells are used to make ‘uli ‘uli, feathered rattles used in hula).

The showiest jacaranda trees can be found in the higher, cooler elevations on each island, as conditions there are more like the tree’s native home in subtropical South America.

However, well-watered jacaranda trees can thrive at lower elevations–such as the beautiful jacaranda in Waimea Valley and other botanical gardens and neighborhood gardens around the Islands.

Look for the jacaranda trees around Schofield Barracks and Kunia Road, the Wahiawa Botanical Garden and along the winding roads of Tantalus in Honolulu. Maui residents head to Kula, where the blooming jacaranda are a sign of spring. When a highway improvement project threatened their beloved jacaranda trees a few years ago, Kula residents showed up in force to protect the trees. They held special meetings and modifications were quickly put in place.

It’s easy to see why the jacaranda is one of the most widely cultivated tropical ornamental trees in the world. It gets folks out of the house each spring, as do the dogwoods on the East Coast and the cherry blossoms in many parts of the world at this time of the year. Maybe we’ll even begin to see jacaranda festivals popping up where they are abundant.

1 Jacaranda is the Portuguese name. Jacaranda mimosifolia, in particular, is native only to northwest Argentina and adjacent Bolivia.

2 Jacaranda has a nonaggressive root system. Street plantings of Jacaranda require a 10-foot-wide curbside planting strip, without overhead wires.

3 Jacaranda is not salt tolerant, and prefers a soil of pH 6.0 to 7.5.

4 All that is needed is a sunny location, soil of average fertility and adequate water until the tree is established.

5 Once established, Jacaranda trees can tolerate dryness–and have even been recommended in xeriscape (water-conserving) plantings.

6 The many winged seeds produced by this tree are easily dispersed by wind and can plant themselves easily–so this tree is considered to be potentially invasive by some cities, but still carries a “low risk” rating by invasive plant watch sites for Hawai’i.