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  • Writer's pictureScott Najima

Hawaii’s First Lady of Pua Aloalo

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Jill Coryell inspects her latest magenta and red hibiscus cultivar

On a quiet rural lane in O’ahu’s North Shore, a woman carefully inspects her two-acre field ablaze in brilliant, fluorescent hibiscus flowers. Eight to eleven inch pinwheels of improbable color combinations surround her: yellow splashed with pink and red; brown with lavender pinstripes; or swirling magenta flamenco skirts ringed with fiery orange: The blossoms are beautiful but at the same time seem unreal; flowers that young children might draw before being told what flowers are supposed to look like.

True to all hibiscus however, such intense beauty is fated not to last: Each gaudy, spectacular blossom unfurls in the early light of day, exuberant with color and erupting with a sparkling fountain of pistils and stamens; some even changing color as the day moves on, but by the first evening most have already exhausted their fire and wither away, to be replaced by a new flower perhaps by the very next day.

For twenty years, this has been Jill Coryell’s world of tropical hibiscus, or aloalo in Hawaiian. The hibiscus: state flower of Hawaii, distinguishing symbol on Hawaii’s major airline logo and which more than any other flower conjures up visions of the picked blossom adorning a young woman’s hair amidst a south seas paradise of verdant mountains, sandy beaches lapped by bluer-than-blue waters and warm gentle breezes.

Gone however are the days of simple 5-petaled red, pink, yellow or white hibiscus; Jill’s latest collection includes double-petal blooms the size of dinner plates in virtually any color with a dizzying combination of 3, 4 or even more colors on a single flower. To create such flowers takes patience and is a work of love: Jill slowly and painstakingly selects and breeds new generations of flowers. From each generation of hundreds of nurtured seedlings, she may keep perhaps 3% of the offspring for further crossing. It may take five to six successive generations for Jill to create a flower that meets her standards: a magnificent bloom of unrivaled form and color, on a stem sturdy enough to hold the blossoms proudly upright. To date, she has created 20,000 hybrids (or “cultivars”), of which Jill currently ships plants all over the country from the two hundred cultivars that she considers the very best.

Jill has established her 2-acre world dedicated to hibiscus in Waialua, the sleepy town on O’ahu’s North Shore next door to bustling Hale’iwa and presided over by an old sugar mill that still dominates the area as a relic from Hawaii’s bygone plantation era. Next to Jill’s rows and rows of pots there is an old mango tree that invites the visitor to dally a while in its shade and enjoy the view of flowers. Scores of electric blue dragonflies zip erratically around the garden, guided by some unknown urgency. Birds can be seen squabbling and chasing each other on the surrounding trees. A large hibiscus bush that Jill says came from a pot that had fallen over has grown to tree-like proportions and casts its shade on the cuttings table. It is a peaceful, casual place.

There is nothing casual however about her dedication to continuous research and refinements in a never-ending goal to create even more spectacular flowers. In particular, Jill has crossed many of her hybrids with the group of local indigenous white hibiscus the Hawaiians collectively call koki’o ke’oke’o, the only known scented hibiscus species in the world, resulting in many hybrids that are not only spectacular to see but are sweet-smelling as well. Jill hopes this to be part of the Hawaiian legacy that slowly gets integrated to other hybrid crosses worldwide. With degrees in both anthropology and Hawaiian Studies, this is important to her.

Amidst the riot of immense and robust blossoms is a hibiscus flower with eccentric, tattered red and white striped petals that resemble nothing less than small scraps of a flag. I wonder why Jill keeps such an odd looking flower amidst the flamboyant glamour of its surrounding cousins. “This is Ka Hae Hawaii, or “Hawaiian Flag” in English.” says Jill as she handles the flower, “In the late 19th century, after the overthrow of Hawaiian royalty, displaying the Hawaiian flag was illegal: Citizens in Honolulu began growing it in their yard as a way to voice their backing of Hawaiian independence. It caught on and many people started planting it to show their support.”

Each variety she grows in fact is given a name with a deeply personal meaning to her: The name of a cancer survivor; personal friends; a mentor. She pauses a long time at one deep salmon-pink beauty with large ruffled petals and a shadow passes over her normally cheerful face. “This flower bloomed for the first time and was the first flower I saw on September 11th, the day of the World Trade Center bombing in New York and the day the brave flight crew of United flight 93 crashed the hijacked plane into a field in Pennsylvania,” she says sadly, “so I named it September Mourning” in memory of those flight attendants that gave up their lives for us.” Long before she raised hibiscus, Jill was a flight attendant for United Airlines.

Other visitors are coming up the dirt driveway and park near the mango tree. Some are tourists that have come simply to take pictures of the flowers for their photo albums or send a phone snap to amaze friends, but one couple has come all the way from Israel to meet her and ask her questions. Jill loves to introduce hibiscus to visitors and is generous with her expertise to an international audience, spending much of her time providing answers to questions about hibiscus on her Mac.

The visitors are all coming just in time as it is getting late in the afternoon and the flowers are not looking quite as full and confident as they were earlier in the day. Within a few hours, most will have completely closed up or fallen to the ground. But tomorrow as the sun begins to rise, there will be a fresh set of flowers to yet again set the field on fire, perhaps even a new variety that opens for the first time that Jill will eagerly welcome and look forward to sharing with others.

For more information about Jill, visit the website

The author Scott Najima is a private guide on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

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