The “Kukui Nut Lei”

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North Shore Eco Tours / Traditional Culture / The “Kukui Nut Lei”

Filed Under: Traditional Culture by admin December 8, 2010, 10:44 pm


For many visitors to Hawai’i a lei (garland of flowers) conjures images of tropical beauty, fun, and island hospitality.  Thanks in part to popular media and tourism advertisements, lei have become a well recognized symbol of a Hawaiian vacation.  Indeed Hawaiian floral lei are as popular today as they were 50 years ago.  Interestingly however, there is a growing interest in a particular type of lei that isn’t made from flowers at all.  The “Kukui nut lei” or lei kukui in proper ‘ōlelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian language) belongs to a class of lei known as lei hua or seed lei.

Lei kukui are the sleek black nut lei worn by many tour guides and tourists alike.  You’ll find them in abundance at popular lū’au (common tourist trap; lit. feast) and for sale in practically every Waikīkī gift shop.  They are usually sanded down, smooth, and polished a shiny black.  Due to their appearance and their association with Hawaiian culture, they are fast becoming a favorite keepsake for island visitors and Islanders living away from Hawai’i.

Along with shell and feather lei, seed lei are special because they last indefinitely.  They can be passed from one generation to the next carrying with it the mana (spiritual energy) and stories of those who wore it before.  Although there are many types of lei hua in Hawai’i, the lei kukui is probably the most well known today.

Kukui is the name of both a nut and the tree from which it originates.  Botanists consider it a “Polynesian introduction” since it was first brought to the islands by early Polynesian settlers approximately 2,000 years ago.  For islanders in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, sustainability and survival were everyday themes.  They lived off the land and sea and only travelled with those things essential to their survival.  Most of the 32 plants introduced by Polynesians to Hawai’i were food plants (as one might imagine).  Mai’a, kalo, ‘uala, ‘uhi, ulu, etc. are all common Polynesian introductions and continue to be staple foods of the Hawaiian diet.  Even though the kukui is edible, it is not considered a food plant.  Why then did Polynesians go through so much trouble to transport it thousands of miles across a salt laden sea?

Part of the answer to that question lies in the kukui’s nickname, the “candlenut tree.”  Although the seed inside the kukui nut is edible and used to make a favorite Hawaiian relish (inamona), it is more well known for the oil it produces.  Kukui are oily and can be used in many beauty, medicine, and lighting applications.  As the nickname indicates, kukui were very important in traditional times for use as candles and torches.  Hawaiians string a bunch of them onto a coconut midrib and light the top.  As one seed burns out, the next automatically lights and then the next after that all the way down the line providing continuous light for several hours at a time.

In addition to lighting, kukui was also used medicinally as a powerful laxative or even a mild Novocain for tooth aches.  The oil was used to increase visibility during night fishing and it was applied to the skin for use as tanning oil or to treat rashes, or simply to moisturize.  Indeed the kukui has many uses.  It is therefore easy to understand why this seemingly insignificant nut was deemed important enough to transport to whatever lands Polynesians sailed.

Despite its many uses however, that does not explain the significance of lei kukui.  The kukui is believed to be a kinolau or physical manifestation of Lono, one of the paramount Hawaiian deities.  Lono is the god of agriculture, fertility, peace, and love making to name a few.  He is the “people’s god.”  Lono is responsible for the rains that come and wet the earth bringing life to the land.  The land is dedicated to him and every year the Makahiki festival is held to celebrate life and peace and to honor Lono.

It is because of this association with Lono that hula practitioners who perform mele for or about him adorn themselves with lei made from kukui nuts and/or kukui leaves.  The same is also true for O’ahu demi-god, Kamapua’a.  The leaf of the kukui tree bears resemblance to a boar’s face and therefore is also associated with Kamapua’a, the pig god.  Lei Kukui are worn to respectfully honor these deities during ceremonies or performances; a tradition extending back to ancient times.

Perhaps a more recent tradition, is kukui’s association with education.  Since Kukui is a source of light, it has come to symbolize enlightenment, knowledge, and learning.  For this reason kukui nut lei are often used by educators for conferences, special occasions, or ceremonies.  It has also become appropriate to give lei kukui to students upon their graduation from school or program of study.

Even though the shiny and highly attractive kukui nut lei make a striking decorative adornment; that is only part of the story.  The real value lies in understanding the significance of this lei.  Mahalo for your interest and hopefully when you give, receive, or handle a kukui nut lei in the future, you will have greater appreciation for this special piece of Hawaiian culture.  E malama pono.


Noah Keola Ryan is a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and Hawaiian Studies educator at the University of Hawaiʻi on Oʻahu Island. For more information about Keola’s background, click here.



The Polynesian and a Kukui Nut Tree | Tiki Spaceship Earth says July 6, 2012,6:58 pm

Kukui nuts are rad; you typically see them worn as leis by the Disney Polynesian staff but also anyone who is living aloha. They are also worn throughout […]




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North Shore Eco Tours will help you gain tremendous insight into the cultural traditions of Hawaiʻi from alaka'i (guides) who are actually Hawaiian educators and/or cultural practitioners.