Native Hawaiian Plants Part II-Kukui, Hawaii's State Tree

Kukui at Likeke Trail
and at Ulupo Heiau

Aloha! Lately I have been immersing myself in Hawaiian culture. It’s amazing how you think you know a lot but the more you study, the more you realize that you’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. I was fortunate enough to learn hula for four years under the direction of Kumu Leina'ala Heine. I paid attention but not nearly enough. I realized how lucky I was to have a special experience with such a gifted kumu after the fact. She’s awesome. I learned that hula is not just a form of dance, it is a way of life. I hope to reconnect with hula in the near future.

But in the meantime I have decided to study other interesting Hawaiian subjects. Let’s put some of our native Hawaiian plants in the spotlight today. We take them for granted because they are all around us. And yet each plant is very special, having so many purposes besides just being a “plant.” There’s a nice story to tell about each of them. The plants and trees that I will be talking about were brought over to Hawaii by the first Polynesians that settled here. Some plants were probably already here transported through pollination by the ocean and air. Most of them have origins in Southeast Asia. It is interesting to note that these plants are used by various cultures, some in similar ways and others very differently, around the world. The thought of having this global connection through our plants gives me chicken skin. It’s a small world after all!

So let’s talk about Kukui. This is Hawai'i’s State Tree. The kukui nut tree, symbolizing enlightenment, protection and peace according to the Native Hawaiians, became the official state tree in 1959 when Hawai'i became the 50th state. It is safe to say that this tree is native to Hawai'i. Scientists have found kukui pollen in ancient geological deposits. Kukui nut is also referred to as candlenut because it was used as a candle due to its high oil content. Ancient Hawaiians would string the nuts and burn them one by one every fifteen minutes. So not only did the nuts provide light but also the time.

They grow in lower slopes of mountains and gulches and are noticeable because their leaves are silver-grey. They are also quite adaptable, growing tall in narrow spaces up 80 feet.

The powdery leaves are trilobed. The leaf is shaped like a pig’s face. Hawaiian mythology indicates that the kukui nut tree is considered to be in the form of Kamapua'a, the hog-man fertility demi-god who is associated to Lono, the god of agriculture. The leaves and greenish white flowers are very decorative and are entwined to make leis.

The fruit is about two inches in diameter. It has a hard green covering when young, turning into a soft grayish-black as it matures. The covering decays quickly when it falls off the branches. It’s what’s inside that is of value. Inside are one or two hard, wrinkled nuts. Whitish when young, turning brown and then black. Leis are made with these.

Then there is the actual meat of the nut. It is roasted (not to be eaten raw) and mixed into a paste with salt to form a Hawaiian condiment known as inamona. Inamona is a key ingredient in traditional Hawaiian poke. It has a very distinctive, nutty flavor. You have to be careful that you don’t eat too much of it because it also serves as a laxative.

The oil pressed out of the roasted kernels serves many purposes. The oil is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral in nature. It helps in soothing sunburns. I have heard that it is also effective in treating eczema, psoriasis, dry skin and acne. It aids in the regeneration of the skin, scalp and hair. It penetrates the skin very well and is used for massages. Wow!

The Native Hawaiians also used the bark and charred nuts for tattoo dye. The flowers and the sap were used to treat e'a (thrush) in children. I think it’s amazing that they found so many uses for this tree.

As I had explained in the beginning, the kukui is used in other parts of the world. In Indonesia and Malaysia the nut is used in their cuisine. The people in Java make a sauce from the nut and eat it with rice and vegetables.

It is used for medicinal purposes. Many Asian cultures use it as a form of laxative. The Japanese have been known to use the bark to treat tumors. Malaysians use the kernel and leaves to treat headache, fevers, ulcers, swollen joints and gonorrhea. The Javanese use the bark for dysentery. In Tonga the ripe nuts are pounded into a paste and used as soap and shampoo. The Tongans also chew the nuts as part of a traditional funeral ritual.

I have already mentioned the many ways that the Hawaiian used the kukui. The oil was also used for varnish. The fishermen also used it to remove reflections in the water. They would chew the nuts and then spit it into the water so that they can see where the fish are. The wood was also used to make fishing canoes.

Modern cultivation is basically for its oil but I am sure that the kukui is still used for all the purposes that we talked about. The Polynesians seem to have brought to Hawai'i many useful plants but the kukui ranks among the most important. So the next time you go to buy a lotion, oil or poke, think about the kukui and its value to the Hawaiian culture.

E malama pono.

Honolulu Festival


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Anonymous said...

kukui trees are not native to hawaii, they were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesians.