The tiare, a small white gardenia, is the national flower of French Polynesia. Creamy white and mildly fragrant, unlike other gardenias, the tiare is one of the few cultivated plants native to Polynesia. They are used to make leis, heis, and adorn the bodies of both men and women. Mostly they are worn behind the ear, and the tiare’s placement indicates sexual availability.
Making leis containing many tiares is an art, takes a long time, and may be a dying activity because it’s so labor intensive. Moreover, the tiare flowers in a Polynesian lei are fresh for only a short time. Usually, they begin to brown at the edges and their whiteness fades within 24 hours of lei creation, even when refrigerated. However, they are recyclable. The flower’s liquid essence can be extracted to make perfumes, lotions, medicines, etc. Ruth and I were lucky enough to meet a woman in Pape’ete who is an expert lei maker. We didn’t get to watch her at her craft, but we wore her leis on a couple of occasions. A hei is often the term for a flower crown.
The Tiare Tahiti was used to craft the neck and head adornments that Tahitians bountifully offered to newcomers from first contact on. They are also used to honor people during special occasions like birthdays and weddings. They often even show up at simple, festive parties or on hotel reception desks. Massage oils, suntan lotions, and treatments for minor ailments often contain essence of tiare. Tiare bushes grow especially well on Mo’orea, slowly become the size of a small tree, and bloom year round.
There are many folk beliefs and customs involving the tiare flower. If a pregnant woman dreams of an open tiare, it means she will probably give birth to a girl. It’s believed that tiares warn travelers of danger. If a man, or tane, wears a tiare behind his right ear, it means he is both available and looking for romance. If he wears one behind his left ear too, it means that he is married but still available.