‘Auhea wale ana ‘oe
Pua carnation ka‘u aloha
A ke lawe ‘ia ‘ala ‘oe
E ka makani pā kolonahe
Ke aloha kai hiki mai
Hō‘eha i ka pu‘uwai
Noho ‘oe a mana‘o mai
Ho‘i mai kāua e pili
Oh, thou fairest of all flowers
Sweet carnation I adore thee
Far from me thou art being borne, my love
By the soft and gentle zephyrs
Love for you is here with me
Filling my heart with pain
When you remember our love
Come back to be with me
(Charles E King, translated by Mary Pukui)
The original birthplace of the carnation is on the coast of the Mediterranean. The popularity of the flower goes back many centuries; the Romans were already making wreathes and fresh eau de toilette out of carnations. (Flower Council)
Later, Americans began to like the carnation … “So when (a florist) finds it necessary to his business to introduce a new ‘fashionable flower’ he takes care that it shall be very expensive and that his customers shall believe it to be very rare.”
“Such a flower is the carnation. It first leaped into prominence as a ‘florists’ flower’ nearly thirty years ago and its vogue at the time was greater even than that of the chrysanthemum in its best days.”
“One day everybody was wearing a rosebud, ten or Bon Selene, (the carnation craze succeeded the ‘Boston bud’ craze); the next day everybody was wearing a carnation.”
“And with a great many people it has remained in favor ever since. This is not only because of its beauty of form and color and its spicy fragrance. The carnation seems to have been especially designed by nature for a boutonniere.”
“It sets closely and neatly to the coat lapel, it keeps fresh and unfaded for a long time, it requires no pinning in place, and it never breaks from its stem”. (Democrat and Chronicle, New York, December 4, 1894)
“Chicago has a carnation day in honor of President McKinley, whose favorite flower was the carnation. Once a year Chicago government buildings bloom with carnations and the employees wear them.” (Hawaiian Star, February 27, 1908)
For years, McKinley had worn a ‘lucky’ red carnation on his lapel; but on September 6, 1901 he decided to gift it to a little girl at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Moments later, he was shot, and died 8-days later. (Kelly)
The carnation can be regularly seen in religious paintings, as a symbol of the Virgin Mary and as a symbol for the suffering of Christ. The Latin name for the carnation is Dianthus, derived from Dios (God) and anthos (flower) – divine flower. (Flower Council)
American Protestant missionary wives are credited with bringing the first carnations to the Islands in the mid-1800s. The first variety was a white, scented flower and it soon became the favorite for lei makers. Red carnations were introduced later. (Bird)
The Hawaiian name for carnation is poni mo‘i (that also means ‘coronation.’) The name is the result of the similarity between the words ‘carnation’ and ‘coronation.’
The major emphasis in the past has been on the production of carnations for lei flowers, and qualities demanded of cut flowers were generally ignored. Consequently, the types grown had small flowers, short stems, and bushy growths. (CTAHR)
Carnations were cultivated in the Koko Crater area on O‘ahu especially to meet the demands of the fast growing tourist industry. In 1900, gardens in Pauoa supplied lei sellers at the piers with carnations and other lei flowers.
Japanese and Korean farmers leased small parcels of land along Lunalilo Home Road and soon their ‘carnation plantations’ were familiar sights, likewise in Kaimuki and Palolo.
The white carnation lei is usually given to women and the red to the men: white being femininely pure and withdrawn – red representing masculine boldness, strength and power. (Ka Lei, Marie McDonald) Depending on the style and flower size, 50 to 100 flowers may be used.
Back in the 1950s-1970s, the fat, fragrant carnation lei was popular. Friends bestowed thick carnation lei at the airport gate, politicians regularly wore them and nightclub entertainers typically had a carnation lei.