It’s 2 am and I’m standing under a staticky fluorescent light. My clothes feel like they are made of the paper that sits under French fries. After 24 hours in transit from Alaska to the island of Hawai’i, I’m just happy to be somewhere, finally.
I’m standing in a trailer, waiting for the adorable, albeit ancient, car rental agent to finish my paperwork. I’m woken from a half-doze by a big family that’s piled into the trailer, laughing raucously and smelling like paradise.
Looped around the grandmother’s neck was a string of fat little gardenia-like flowers, spaced with yellow foliage that looked a lot like tiny banana peels. The lei smelled like a hot summer rainstorm; floral, but with a sharp cedary tang and lingering undertones of wet earth and sweet milk, and so strong that they were almost noxious. But at the same time, I couldn’t get enough.
I asked the woman what kind of flowers they were, and she insisted that I take the lei. They were from her yard in Vanuatu, where her own mother had planted tiaré (Tahitian gardenia) and ylang ylang trees when she was a kid.
I kept the lei, and it STILL smells sugary and earthy, all these years later. It’s hard to explain why this string and dried flowers is precious to me, but it was my first day on the island, and the scent of sticky tropical flowers always transports me back to the dense forests and black-sand beaches.
I planted a tiaré tree in my own yard, but while I wait for it to bloom, I’ve got another Pacific treasure to tide me over while I wait: Parfumerie Tiki’s Monoϊ Tiki Tiaré oil.
I know, we’re all completely saturated in oils, but this one, this one is magic. Made simply from fresh tiaré flowers and copra (a stronger-scented coconut oil from sun-dried coconuts), it delicately scents your skin and hair, while soothing and protecting it from the elements.
Honestly, just opening the bottle is soothing, not to mention buttering your limbs in it. Everytime I go back to Hawai’i, I stock up; while I might not live in Hawai’i full-time, I can certainly smell like it.
Along with the oft-worshipped properties of coconut oil, tiaré flowers have been used for their many medicinal properties for centuries. Aside from being an aphrodisiac, tiaré flowers are high in linalool, a compound found in other essential oils from flowers, that has been touted with everything from mood elevation, "decrease in aggressive behaviour," to fighting cancer.
Monoϊ Tiki Tahiti oil is ubiquitous in Hawai’i; go into any drugstore, grocery store or shop, and if they have lotion, they have monoϊ oil. It’s even affordable, especially considering that it’s handmade in Tahiti with local ingredients.
Monoϊ oil has been made for at least a few thousand years; Māori people of Aotearoa used coconut oil to preserve the tiaré flower essence and used it for everything from insect repellant, and sun protection (it has an SPF of about 8), to sacred ceremonies and burial rituals. Both the practice of making monoϊ and the tiaré flower has spread throughout the Pacific, but the only authentic mass-distributed monoϊ oil is produced in small batches, by hand, in Tahiti.
Parfumerie Tiki has been in operation since 1942; first made in Papeete by Gustave Langy, who picked tiaré flowers, macerates them in sun-dried coconut oil, then bottled and delivered it by bicycle to local shops. By the 1970s, it was a cult favourite; brought to Europe and the U.S. by well-heeled vacationers, the scent of tiaré and coconut became synonymous with the island of Tahiti.
In 1992, monoϊ oil from Tahiti was awarded Appellation of Origin--meaning that like Gruyère cheese and Champagne, monoϊ can only be produced in Tahiti to be considered true monoϊ oil. It’s an attempt to protect one of the few, sustainable industries that is accessible to locals, outside of hospitality.
Still, there are many imitators, but they can be identified by a quick perusal of the ingredients; usually just synthetic fragrances added to a concoction of other oils and industrial solvents--like isododecane.
It’s always disappointing when bigger cosmetics companies try to dupe a product with such humble beginnings and simple ingredients. Parfumerie Tiki even started putting real, dried tiaré flowers in the bottle to prove the origin of their product, and copycats followed suit. This is particularly funny, because it’s the major gripe most people have with monoϊ oil: ”What is this gross dried up brown thing in it?!” It’s nature, babies, just nature.
Unless you’re somewhere on an island sparkling in the Pacific, Monoϊ Tiki Tiaré Oil can be tough to get a hold of, but it’s available online as well as in some natural foods stores. Parfumerie Tiki now has a complete line of other oils and treatments, including ylang ylang, plumeria and jasmine oils as well as soaps and perfumes.
The strangest is an iodine-tinted monoϊ oil to dye your skin... well... iodine-coloured, for that scrumptious post-surgery look. My favourite is the vanilla-scented monoϊ with a chunk of Tahitian vanilla bean in the bottle. It’s my go-to summer scent--warm and buttery, but with lush, bright tiaré top notes. Divine.
I use monoϊ oil especially if I’m going anywhere near the ocean; salt water and calcium carbonate sand can completely fry your hair, and leave you with ashy elbows and dehydrated skin. I usually layer it under my usual SPF. Especially on chemically treated hair, a generous dollop of monoϊ oil before hitting the beach will protect it from the battering surf, and it dries into pretty good beach hair.
Are you already a fan of monoϊ oil? Gardenia is a very polarizing scent, so I expect to hear from both sides of the house--keep it clean. Mostly I need to know more about Tahiti--mainly who’s been there and what it’s like. Do you consider local sustainability when you buy products?