The Kukui Nut Tree: The State Tree of Hawaii

Can you identify the state tree of Hawaii? Hint: it’s not a palm tree. It’s the Kukui Nut Tree. This tree is widespread throughout the Hawaiian Islands and plays an important part in Hawaiian culture and mythology. The Kukui nut has a wide variety of uses including medicinal.

Where did it come from?

When the Polynesians first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands they brought with them the seeds of the Kukui tree, stowed away in their canoes. In 1959 it became the official state tree of Hawaii. 

The many uses of the Kukui nut tree

The Kukui nut

The Kukui nut itself is perhaps the most prized part of the tree. Ancient Hawaiians used the oil derived from the nuts to coat fishing nets, while the outer shells were used in the process of creating natural dyes for tattoos. The oil could also be used as a dressing for treating sore muscles, burns, or other skin complaints. The oil is often an ingredient in soaps, candles, lotions, and even as an oil for surfboards!

Known elsewhere as the Candlenut tree, ancient Hawaiians would burn Kukui nuts in order to use them like candles. Nuts were strung along the middle section of a coconut palm frond, then lit and burnt one at a time. Because each nut burns for approximately 15 minutes, ancient Hawaiians were able to use them to measure time. 

The nuts can also be roasted and the inside of the nut turned into a spice called inamona. This spice is still used in traditional poke recipes. Depending on how the inside of the nut is consumed it can also be used as a laxative(!).

Kukui nuts are also used to create leis by stringing together a collection of nuts. The nuts are sanded, then buffed and polished until either dark brown, black or even white. The leis are often worn by hula dancers, or exchanged by couples during marriage ceremonies. 

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Photo credit: geckofarms.com
The rest of the Kukui Nut Tree

The wood from the Kukui tree was used to make canoes. The wood of the Kukui needs to be waterproofed before it’s ocean-ready and Kukui nut oil is perfect for this purpose. The roots are even used as part of the process to make black paint which was traditionally used to decorate canoes or tapa cloth. 

The Kukui nut tree can grow up to 80 feet in height, often in an oval shape. The leaves themselves have a distinct pattern, often having three or five lobes (projections of the blade of the leaf with the gaps between them).

Can I eat a Kukui nut?

Since the nut has laxative properties, it’s not recommended that you eat a Kukui nut. It functions more as an ingredient in spice, rather than something to be consumed on its own.

Hawaiian mythology

In Hawaiian mythology Kamapua’a was a wild demi-god, half pig and half man, able to change from one to the other. The kukui tree is known as a kinolau – the physical embodiment of Kamapua’a. You’ll find that if you fold a kukui leaf in half along the stem, the leaf appears in the shape of a boar head. 

The Kukui trees are among the first trees you’ll see on arrival at Horizon Guest House. Look out for them as you drive up the first section of the driveway from the gate – they line either side of the driveway.

Kukui Nut Tree Big Island

The Kukui nut tree was not only an important source of wood for canoes but the nut, and its many uses, became an integral part of ancient Hawaiian life.

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Visit Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau Place of Refuge

Love Big Island Haloe O Keawe
Hale O Keawe. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

Find out what makes Pu’uhonua o Honaunau such a special site on the Big Island of Hawaii. From history to architecture, this is a must-see attraction!

1. Royal grounds

In ancient Hawaiʻi the Royal Grounds were considered the center of power. Within the grounds is the main temple (heiau) where the bones of over 20 chiefs (ali’i) were buried. This gave the temple a special kind of spiritual power, known in Hawaiian as mana. Next to the Royal Grounds is the Pu’uhonua. This area became a place of refuge for those who violated kapu, the sacred laws and beliefs by which all Hawaiians adhered to at the time.

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Royal Grounds. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

2. Breaking kapu & the Pu'uhonua

Kapu could be broken in a variety of different ways. These might include the following transgressions:

  • a woman eats with a man
  • fish is caught out of season
  • a commoner disrespects an ali’i (chief)

For these type of violations you could face the death penalty, unless you were able to escape your captors, get to the coast and then swim to the Pu’uhonua (the area of land bordered by the Great Wall and the coastline). Once there you could seek forgiveness for your crime by being absolved by the priest. 

NPS photo 2
The Great Wall. Photo credit: NPS

The Pu’uhonua also had other uses. During war it became a place for children, elders, and those not fighting, to seek refuge. For those warriors who were defeated in battle they could also seek shelter and sanctuary until it was time to return home. Kapu officially ended in 1819 and with it the tradition of seeking sanctuary at Pu’uhonua Hōnaunau.

3. Chiefly power

The Royal Grounds were the gathering place for local chiefs to meet, hold ceremonies and negotiate during times of war. They also engaged in games like kōnane (a board game) and he’e hōlua (sled riding). Priests were also consulted by the chiefs in times of need.  

NPS Walsh
Hale O Keawe. Photo credit: NPS / Walsh

What to see

There’s lots to see at Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau but if you’re stretched for time we’ve picked the highlights:

  1. The Great Wall – the wall measures 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide and over 950 feet long. Over 400 years old, the wall is constructed entirely using the dry-set masonry method (uhau humu pohaku) in which are stones fitted together without mortar. 
  2. Hale o Keawe – the main temple housing the bones of the 23 ali’i (chiefs). The temple is only able to be viewed from the outside, but it’s worth an up close visit to appreciate its mana.
  3. Pu’uhonua – take a walk past the Great Wall and into the Pu’uhonua itself. 
  4. Keone’ele – this sheltered cove in the Royal Grounds was only for the ali’i to land their canoes. Look out for turtles here, but make sure to keep a safe distance. 
Love Big Island Pu-uhonua-o-Hōnaunau-National-Historical-Park-map
Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

What you need to know

Place of Refuge NPS
Aerial view of Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau. Photo credit: NPS

Where is it? Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is located in South Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i. To get there, take Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy. 11) to Kea Ala o Keawe Road (Hwy. 160) between mile marker 103 and 104. Follow Hwy. 160 down to the bottom, the turn off for the park entrance will be on your left.

The visitor center is open daily and there’s lots to do – why not try taking a self-guided tour, attend a ranger program, or walk the 1871 trail to Ki’ilae Village (a 2.25 mile roundtrip hike through ancient sites – including volcanic features). 

Love Big Island 1871 Trail looking north toward the Pu'uhonua, Keanae'e Cliffs to the right
1871 Trail looking north toward the Pu'uhonua, Keanae'e Cliffs to the right. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

Visiting Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau is a great way in gain insight into life in ancient Hawai’i. Make sure you include this national park on your travel itinerary!

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