Tahitian Gardenia “The Tiare”
General Description / Cultural Significance
The large white, endemic Tahitian gardenia, Gardenia taitensis, or tiare, is a symbol of Polynesia amongst the island’s many kinds of tropical vegetation, including other aromatic iconics such as ylang-ylang, jasmine, and oleander. Gardenia taitensis is a tropical shrub with dark glossy leaves and large white pinwheel-shaped flowers. It emits a sweet-smelling fragrance. It is the national flower of French Polynesia, and a staple of Tahitian culture. About 110 million flowers are harvested per year throughout the country, as they are worn on necklaces and often tucked behind the ear. When a woman wears the flower behind her right ear, it is to signal that she is romantically available. In Polynesian mythology, it is a symbol of harmony and is associated with love. It is also spread out on floors traditionally to destroy bad spirits and purify spaces. Its essential oil is highly valued in aromatherapy, for its calming and aphrodisiac effects.
In Tahitian medicine, the flower is also used to treat many ailments, like headaches, colds, sunburns, and bug bites. It is often soaked and ground up with other ingredients and is sometimes mixed with coconut oil to create an infusion.
Climate Change/Conservation Status
Rising sea levels due to global warming are expected to wipe some of the islands of French Polynesia off the map. Many already have damaged reefs and eroding coastlines as they slowly submerge. In March of 2017 the country announced that it is looking at the idea of building “floating islands” and has signed a contract to build its first.
By 2100, sea levels are expected to have risen by up to 3 meters. Based on studies of 1,269 French islands, between 5% and 12% could be totally submerged in the future. On a worldwide scale, they predict that about 300 endemic island species are at risk of going extinct, and the habitat of thousands of others will be drastically reduced or negatively impacted.
The Tahitian gardenia is not endangered at this time according to the IUCN. However, over-exploitation, habitat loss, and extreme weather events threaten many species including the tiare. The fact that the islands are low-lying means they are increasingly more vulnerable to sea level rise. This warrants great concern for the gardenia and the islands it grows on.