The little-known state tree of Hawaii is the kukui nut tree. The tree is common throughout the Hawaiian Island chain and features prominently in Hawaiian culture and mythology. Used for medicinal purposes, Hawaii’s amazing kukui nut is also polished and turned into spectacular black leis.
Where did the kukui nut tree come from?
The kukui tree originally arrived in Hawaii along with the first Polynesians. They traveled to Hawaii with the seeds of the tree in their canoes. The kukui nut tree is also known as the candlenut tree because the early settlers used the kukui nut for candles. Canoes were constructed from the wood of the kukui tree. The root of the tree was used in the process of making black paint. The paint was then used to decorate tapa cloth. By 1959 it was designated the official tree of Hawaii.
The Kukui nut
The kukui nut is used for a number of different purposes. The oil extracted from the nut was used to coat fishing nets and to water-proof canoes. The oil was also used for sore muscles, a balm for burns, and a medicine for other skin ailments. The oil was also used as an ingredients in soaps and lotions. The outer shell of the nut was used in the creation of natural dyes for tattoos.
In order to use the nut as a candle the nuts were gathered and placed along the middle part of a coconut palm frond. They were then lit and then burnt one at a time. In this way, ancient Hawaiians were able to use the burning nuts to tell the time since each nut took about 15 minutes to burn.
The nuts can also be turned into a spice. They are first roasted and the inside of the nut is turned into a spice called inamona. It also had another medicinal use – excess consumption of the inside of the nut has a laxative effect!
(The photos below show the kukui nut in stages, from when it’s first picked fresh, then as it ages, as the shell breaks away, and finally the nut itself).
Kukui nut leis
In order to create the famous kukui nut leis, the nuts are collected then sanded, buffed and eventually polished until they produce a dark brown or black color. The leis themselves are often used by hula dancers, or exchanged by couples at marriage ceremonies. Kukui nuts have also been used as prayer tokens. They were thought to capture a person’s spiritual energy. The kukui nut leis were often worn by Kahunas (priests) and the aili’i (royalty).