It’s easy to spot a kukui nut tree in Hawaii; just look for the canopy of shimmering silvery-green leaves, and you’ll know what we’re talking about. They glisten under gentle morning rays, swaying this way and that, and bring us back in time, reminding us of Old Hawaii.
Ancient Hawaiians used the nuts of the tree for spiritual, medicinal, and navigational purposes; however, the most common usage was for light. When strung in a row on a palm-leaf midrib and lit, the nuts looked very much like a candle. In fact, this is how the tree got its Hawaiian name, which means “light” or “lamp.” In English, it’s more commonly called the candlenut tree.
Today, kukui nut lei has become a symbol of a Hawaiian vacation, thanks to tourism advertisements and popular media. Tourists and tour guides often wear them, as they’re easily acquired and quite affordable. You can get the lei from gift shops and most street-side vendors in Hawaii.
This was not the case in ancient times, however, because only royalty was allowed to wear these lei made of sleek black nuts. It was a way to show the alii’s social status, as well as honor Lono, the god of agriculture, peace, and fertility. In fact, Hawaiians consider kukui to be the kino lau, or physical manifestation, of Lono, and it’s because of this that kukui trees would be most abundant during times of harvest.
This Polynesian-introduced plant also honors the Oahu pig god, Kamapuaa. If you look closely at the shape of the tree’s leaf, then you’ll notice it resembles the face of a boar. In elementary, I remember tracing the kukui leaf on paper and making pig masks out of them. This could be a fun outdoor activity if you’re traveling with kids. The trees can be found growing all over the islands, usually at the base of mountains.
Unlike fresh flower lei, the kukui nut lei will last forever. You can bring them home with you as a reminder of your trip to the islands but most importantly, as a reminder of its history and significance to the Hawaiian culture.
Photo Credit: Bruce Fisher