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The Kukui Nut Tree in Hawaii

Lei made from the kukui nut tree in Hawaii.

Kukui nut lei. Image courtesy of Dawn Freitas.

Background of the Kukui Nut Tree in Hawaii

The official state tree of Hawaii is the kukui nut tree or kukui tree. It’s known elsewhere as the candlenut tree. Historians consider the kukui nut tree in Hawaii as one of a number of “canoe plants.” This because the Polynesians brought such seeds with them in canoes when they came to Hawaii. The kukui nut tree in Hawaii has large silvery-green leaves. It can grow up to 80 feet in height. And it usually extends wide and tall into a distinct oval-shaped tree top.

Uses of the Kukui Nut Tree

The kukui nut tree in Hawaii has played an important plant in traditional culture and lifestyle. Ancient Hawaiians used its durable wood from the trunk to make canoes. They used the oil from the nuts to coat fisherman’s nets or to illuminate candle-pods. Also, Hawaiians used kukui nut oil as topical dressing for massaging sore muscles, soothing burns, chapped skin and wounds.

The light-colored oil is practically odorless and easily absorbed by the skin. It blends 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. People also use it as a hair follicle stimulant, in lomi lomi massages or even as a laxative.

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. The ancient Hawaiians have used it as a spice called inamona. Inamona still remains a key ingredient in poke, a popular dish made with raw fish and limu (seaweed). You can often find poke 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.

Cultural Legacy of the Kukui Nut Tree

The tree holds much symbolism for Hawaiians. 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. Here, kukui nuts 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. Kukui nuts have also been used as prayer tokens, believed to capture one’s spiritual energy. They were often worn by hula dancers, kahunas (priests) and aili’i (royalty). Kukui nut bracelets were 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 to be the Hawaii state tree as it has been deeply ingrained into so many aspects of Hawaiian history and culture.


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