I am continually charmed by Hawai'i. A few days ago when we were on our morning walk, I saw one of the most beautiful sights, several very large trees loaded interesting ball like pink flowers about the size of grapefruits. I have owned nurseries in Southern California and South Carolina and my friend was a landscape contractor in the bay area and neither of us knew what it was. I took some pictures and posted them on facebook to see if anyone knew the identity of these beauties and my friend Liz told me that they were a Dombeya Tree and also known as Natal Cherry (and no, there are no edible fruit on these.) I have never seen anything quite like them before. Hawaii is always surprising me with it's incredible fauna and this pretty much takes the prize.
After quite a bit of searching, I discovered that this particular version of the Dombeya (Wallichii) is also known as the Pink Ball Tree, Hawaiian Hydrangea and the Tropical Hydrangea. It does look a lot like a Hydrangea, except that it's large flowers hang down instead of stand up, and of course this is a 20'-30' tall evergreen tree instead of a deciduous shrub. It also comes in hot pink, orange and red and a variegated pink but the bright pink one is most common in Hawai'i. I have a friend on Oahu who also has seen them in her neighborhood, so they are not only on Hawai'i Island.
This fantastically beautiful blooming tree is not native to Hawai'i, but our climate is ideal for it. It originated in India, Madagascar and East Africa. A renowned French tropical botanist (also surgeon) and explorer, Dr. Joseph Dombey discovered the plant in the 1700's and it was named for him. He is quite an interesting fellow, so I suggest that you read about him. Note: he died in a British prison!
My research also told me that the trees can be propagated by cuttings, so guess who is going to take some cuttings? You got that right! Me! If I am successful, I will be glad to share them with you if you are in Hawai'i. I also think t hat they must spread by seed too, because the grove where these grow has probably more than 50 of these trees growing wild amongst banana, breadfruit, avocado, guava, strawberry guava, coconut palm and other local trees.
Obviously this tree blooms in the winter here. The particular grove of these trees near my house is in a rather wild area next to a pali (cliff) that leads down to the ocean, but I have also read that they are not extremely salt tolerant, but this grove is only slightly protected from salt air. My friend Sonia mentioned this tree to me a while back, saying she looks for it blooming next to the Honolii bridge near where the stand of trees is near our house, but even to her it was a mystery as to the name and origin.
On the downside, from what I have read, this beautiful scented flower that smells like buttercream frosting (I can verify that fragrance note!) attracts bees, so you would not want to place it next to your patio. Also, when the flowers fall from the tree, they have a putrid scent that attracts flies. So, it should be placed out in a corner of the yard where you can enjoy it from afar. The velvety heart shaped leaves are evergreen and the plant can only tolerate tropical conditions. In the US it only survives in Hawaii, far south Florida, far south Texas, parts of southern Arizona and extreme coastal California. The university of California has an informative fact sheet about the Dombeya.