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The Kukui Nut

Kukui, or candlenuts, at the Amy Greenwell Garden south of Captain Cook, HI

Kukui Nuts, Amy Greenwell Garden

While there’s nothing quite like being draped in the smell of plumeria, kukui net leis last indefinitely and travel a lot better. I have two kukui nut leis, both gifts — one from Michael, the smiling guy behind Tiki’s Grill and Bar in Waikiki, given to me on my first tourism sponsored trip to the islands, the other from Julie, the embodiment of aloha and the woman behind the Moloka’i Visitor’s Association. There’s a third one bundled with the husband’s aloha wear, kukui nut and ti leaf, from our wedding on the beach in Maui.

The kukui nut  is rich in oil and was used as a light source by the early Hawaiians. Skewered in a stack on the tough spine of a coconut frond, each nut would burn for about 15 minutes — that’s why they earned the name candle nuts. The kukui tree  was imported by the Polyneisians who used it not only for light, but for medicinal purposes, for dying tapa, for preserving fishing nets, and more.

To make a lei, the nut is shelled of its tough green hull and polished to a smooth finish, then drilled and strung on a ribbon. Mostly, you’ll see them in dark brown or black, though they do sometimes come in a rare pale color. Some sources say the kukui nut is associated with Lono, the god of peace and prosperity. Because of its practical use as a light source, it’s also become associated with education. When someone drapes a kukui nut lei around your neck they are passing along the gift of peace and light.

It can be hard to keep the significance of the kukui nut in mind — you’ll find stands full of kukui nut leis everywhere, your hotel lobby, probably, the ABC store, the farmer’s markets,the airport. As likely as not they’ll be bearing “made in the Philippines” tags. But the kukui nut is more than a shiny brown seed, it holds light and the spirit of Lono. That makes for a lei that’s more than just a souvenir.


  1. Matt says:

    Love learning more about it! I received my first kukui nut lei was a gift after a Hawaiian prayer. The simple gesture meant a lot to me and I have worn it proudly on my trip. Thanks for shedding some light on the spirit of Lono!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pam Mandel, LandLopers. LandLopers said: Lovely post by @nerdseyeview about the oft misunderstood Kukui Nut http://bit.ly/9H13RT #hawaii […]

  3. Lori says:

    Roasted and ground kukui nut (“inamona”) is also an ingredient in poke, that Hawaiian dish of raw fish. Don’t eat too much of it, however – it is a purgative if you do.

    I have a very old kukui nut lei that used to belong to my grandfather – it’s the only thing I have of his.