Endangered Tahitian flower connected to Māori

By Peata Melbourne

The tiare apetahi is a rare flower that can only be found in the Tahitian island of Ra'iātea. Now endangered, the emblematic flower of Ra'iātea is heavily protected.

Polynesian peoples believe that when their spirits leave from the north in Te Rerenga Wairua, the souls descend beneath the waters and resurface at Ra'iātea in Tahiti. At the break of dawn when the tiare apetahi pods open, their spirits are finally released to the heavens.

Romy Tavaeari'i, chair of the Tuihana Association, a voluntary group dedicated to the plants' protection shares the Tahitian tale of the flower and its spiritual connection to Māori.

"When those of Tahiti, Māori, Rapa Nui or Hawaiian descent dies, their soul comes to Mount Temehani. It is said that when the soul is coming back here to Temehani, they will be able to take one tiare apetahi to keep their heart beautiful forever," explains Tavaeari'i.

Thousands of apetahi flowers once covered the Temehani plateau in Ra'iātea, a beacon to returning souls that they're nearly home. 

Today there are only twenty apetahi left. Anyone who picks, kills or attempts to transplant an apetahi flower risks a prison sentence and a fine of one million pacific francs, or $14,500 NZD. A law was established in 1995 that bans people from picking or cutting the flowers and transporting them elsewhere.

"Scientists tried years ago researching how to grow the flower in other places around the world, they even went to Europe and other foreign countries far from here, but it never worked because it only grows here (in Ra'iātea)," says Tavaeari'i.

The flower can be found on two plateaus in Ra'iātea; one is higher and inaccessible but on the first plateau only one can be easily accessed. The area is now monitored by cameras for the flowers protection against human hands.