Ghost Flower


This past fall, we were lucky enough to be the first to smell the scent of a flower that has been extinct for over 100 years. Well, we plus the other few hundred people sitting in the theatre. It was a collective whiff organized by the Pop-Up Magazine.

The Pop-Up Magazine is billed as a live magazine that features numerous multimedia stories told by musicians, writers, podcast hosts, and various creatives all accompanied by animations and a live score. And if they ever have an event near you, go. It's unexpected, captivating, and extremely fun. Inside the packed Curran Theatre in SF, we sat through stories of a young woman's struggle to speak again after mysteriously losing her voice, a controversial Saudi Arabian terrorist rehabilitation center, the formula for a perfect cookie (which we got to taste!), and the Mountain Hibiscus that was once found on the slopes of Haleakala in Maui.


Rowan Jacobsen speaking at the Curran Theatre in SF. photo credit: Jon Snyder & Erin Brethauer


In addition to a sample of the perfect cookie, a piece of paper sealed in a small cellophane envelope was stapled to the evenings program. That paper contained the scent of an extinct flower. Maui's Mountain Hibiscus. A scent that is said to not have been smelled for over 100 years. Rowan Jacobsen, a food and nature writer, led us through the story of this extinct hibiscus and its rebirth as a scent. There was no way I could wait for him to finish the story before smelling this piece of paper. Ripping open that small envelope revealed a spicy and citrusy fragrance, with hints of juniper berry, and cloaked in an overall sweetness. It was amazing, complex, and somewhat familiar but at the same time, distant.

The scented card (front & back)

The scented card (front & back)

Ghost Flower sample002.jpg

Afterwards I was curious about this extinct hibiscus plant. Doing a little research led me to the 1911 publication of New and Noteworthy Hawaiian Plants by the Territory of Hawai'i’s Board of Agriculture and Forestry. It is the only mention of a hibiscus native to the slopes of Haleakala that I could find (image below left). Even in 1911, the report states that “only one tree was observed on the southern slope of Haleakala on the lava fields of Auahi at an elevation of 2600 feet.” With this bit of amateur sleuthing, the Latin name comes up as hibiscadelphus wilderianus, with an image plate of a clipping. Going to the Bishop Museum’s archives gave us a few more, albeit dried, visuals of the plant all from the same time period (image below right).

Plate from New and Noteworthy Hawaiian Plants (1911)
Hibiscadelphus Wilderianus  sample from the Bishop Museum (1913)

This whole experience led us down the path to think about the revival of lost scents and tastes through science.

With the genetic material of the Mountain Hibiscus being extracted by the company Ginkgo BioWorks, it is now in the process of being produced as a perfume. Is this our future? DNA from extinct plants and animals used to bring back to life the look, smell, and taste of a past world? With the loss of species estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, and most ecologists of the opinion that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, I think it’s safe to say yes.

It was an unexpected story to hear that night. The Ghost Flower. And hopefully one day we’ll be able to smell the real thing growing on the slopes of Haleakala.

Brother of Hibiscus - Remote valley on the West side of Maui 2012.jpg


Recently another type of hibiscadelphus, aka “Brother of Hibiscus”, was found in a remote valley in western Maui (photo left). The plant that was found is a species previously unknown and new to science. Amazingly, there were close to 100 of these hibiscadelphus trees found growing together. Visually speaking, this is not your typical hibiscus flower. Did the Mountain Hibiscus of Haleakala look similar? It’s hard to tell considering that we have no visuals of the actual flower.