Shimmery leaves, silvery-pale green foliage dancing in the wind. Or else you catch a glimpse as you zip through the Halawa forest canopy, a peaceful play of light like a song. These are the ways that Hawaii’s beloved kukui tree reveals itself. A member of the spurge family, kukui became the State Tree of Hawaii in 1959, embodying in its varied use and intrinsic beauty a sense of serenity, protection, and calm.
Kukui is thought to be native to Malaysia or Indonesia, its Latin name being Aleurites Moluccana. It came to Hawaii with early canoe-voyaging Polynesians, perhaps as early as 300 AD. The Hawaiians used the whole tree, for numerous things. The husky fruits shelter nuts prized to this day and across the world for their plentiful oil. In ancient days, this oil lit up stone lamps and ti-leaf torches, hence its American name candlenut tree. The oil soothed sunburn, skin rashes or chapped lips. Oil doubled as a varnish for the Hawaiians’ double-hulled canoes. It’s said that a mature kukui nut tree can drop 100 pounds of nuts in a season.
All parts of the kukui tree are toxic, but toxicity harbors medicine and the Hawaiians understood this deeply. Green sap, pounded kukui nut flesh, mashed flowers, ground roasted kernels, and other preparations found their way into cleansing tonics and potent healing remedies. In addition, the bark colored and strengthened the Hawaiians’ tapa, a cloth made from the mulberry tree. The wood was useful for the building of canoes.
To this day, you can find kukui nut oil in lotions and soaps, in Hawaiian resort spas and specialty stores. Ground and roasted, kukui nut is key to the condiment (inamona), which with salt, chile pepper water, and chunks of raw fish makes great poke local-style. You may also have come across lei made with polished, shiny black or brown kukui nuts. But this type of lei only became popular after contact with the West, long after 1778. The Hawaiian people preferred to use kukui’s pretty, white flowers, and those lovely, lithe leaves. They braided these together to denote the evanescence of life as we soar through the adventure, beautiful in the moment, then gone.