The kukui nut tree has played an important plant in traditional Hawaiian culture and lifestyle. Ancient Hawaiians used the durable wood from the tree trunk to make their buoyant canoes, which they would use for fishing and traveling between the islands. The oil from the nuts was used to coat fisherman’s nets or to illuminate candle-pods, using the oily nuts as fuel. Kukui nut oil was also as topical oil for massaging sore muscles. Kukui nut oil has been celebrated for centuries as a topical medication, for soothing burns, chapped skin and dressing wounds. The light-colored oil is practically odorless and easily absorbed by the skin, blending seamlessly with most lotions and creams as it is high in alpha-linoleic and other fatty acids. At farmer’s markets around the islands, kukui nut oil can be found as the primary ingredient in soaps, candles and body lotions. It can also be used as a hair follicle stimulant, lomi lomi massage oil or a laxative supplement.
The outer shell of the rich-colored nuts became a natural dye for tattoos, while the crushed root was used as black paint on canoes or on tapa cloths. The white insides of the nuts can also be roasted and chopped, and served as a spice called inamona, which still remains a key ingredient in poke, a popular dish made with raw fish and limu (seaweed) and is sometimes served at luaus or as an appetizer at many types of gatherings in Hawaii. Even the leaves of the kukui nut tree were used to treat sore joints, fevers and headaches, while the sap of the tree was believed to heal cold sores, chapped lips and mouth ulcers.
The tree holds much symbolism for the native Hawaiians, and the kukui nut represents protection, peace, enlightenment and light. Kamapua’a, the Hawaiian demi-god of fertility, would be able to take the form of the kukui nut tree, before changing back into his half-hog, half-man form.
Even those that might be unfamiliar with this tree have probably seen the kukui nuts strung together in leis. Kukui nut leis are standard adornments at many traditional Hawaiian events. The kukui nuts used in this fashion are typically sanded, buffed and polished into dark brown, black or white finishes. The nuts can be laced together by themselves or interlaced with shells and worn as a lei or bracelet. The kukui nuts have also been used as prayer tokens, believed to capture one’s spiritual energy and were worn in the part by hula dancers, kahunas (priests) and aili’i (royalty). The kukui nuts bracelets have also exchanged between betrothed couples.
The delicate white kukui blossoms are the official flower of the island of Molokai. These can be strung as leis, or when its flowers are accessed by bees, they can create kukui honey, one of the more unique honey products in Hawaii. It is no mystery why the kukui nut tree deserves the Hawaii state tree as it has been deeply integral to so many aspects of Hawaiian history and culture.