Island Flowers and Lei



The lei is the very symbol of aloha.  A Hawaiian proverb states, “E lei no au i ko aloha” (“I will wear your love as a wreath”), meaning “I will cherish your love as a beautiful adornment.”[i]

In ancient Hawai‘i, respect and honor was bestowed upon someone by placing a lei upon their head and shoulders, which are considered sacred parts of the body.  The Hawaiian goddess associated with lei making is Kukuena, whose daughter Laka may take the form of ‘ilima (Sida fallax). 

[Illustration: Person presenting another with a lei]


Lei Materials and Uses

Ancient Hawaiians utilized various materials for lei.  These lei materials included flowers, ferns, fern allies, vines, seeds, nuts, feathers, wood, shells and teeth (e.g., teeth of ‘īlio (Canis familiaris, dogs)), teeth of palaoa (Physeter macrocephalus, sperm whales), and human hair.  Also used in lei were bones, including human finger bones.

In ancient Hawai‘i, lei were often woven to pay paid tribute to the gods, and to show reverence and give thanks for all that was provided by the land and sea.  Particular lei had ceremonial and medicinal uses.

After Western contact was established in 1778 many introduced species began to be utilized for making lei.  For example, the missionaries who came to convert natives to Christianity also brought roses (Rosa species), and the Chinese who came to work in the sugarcane fields also brought pīkake (Jasminum sambac, Arabian jasmine) and pakalana (Telosma cordata, Chinese violet). 

From the Philippines came the jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), from Tahiti came plumeria (Plumeria species), and from Mexico came Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea species)—and all of these blossoms were fashioned into beautiful lei.  Later many other flowers were introduced and lei gained even more popularity as a symbol of aloha.

Today the lei remains an important symbol of friendship, love and aloha.  The lei is a traditional welcome, and is used on many different occasions, including birthdays, dances, graduations, weddings and anniversaries.  Lei are also made and worn for lū‘au, Hawaiian feasts that are often large gatherings of the extended family (‘ohana).

Lei are often given on Secretary’s Day, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, and to anyone leaving or arriving in the Hawaiian Islands.  Lei are also given to honor athletes at the end of a season or career.  They are also placed on the bier at funerals, and on gravestones to pay respect to the departed.

 A lei for the head is known as lei po‘o, while a lei worn around the neck is known as lei ‘ā‘ī.  Lei made to be worn on the wrists or ankles are known as kūpe‘e.  A lei worn around the neck should be worn not just hanging in the front, but more centered, so both the front and back are comfortably arranged. 

To show appreciation to the giver of a lei, one may give a kiss and an embrace.  It is said that if one makes a lei for another and thinks of that person as they make it, the lei will carry those feelings and expressions of love.


Historical Lei Selling Areas

Before World War II, Honolulu’s Maunakea Street was a traditional lei selling area, a floral center where lei sellers lined the sidewalks.  The port of Honolulu Harbor was also a popular lei selling area when the luxury liners of the Matson Company docked and unloaded visitors amidst the hoopla of the Royal Hawaiian band and hula dancers. 

Lei sellers stood on the pier, lei draped over their arms, selling strands of ‘ilima (Sida fallax), ponimō‘ī (Dianthus caryophyllus, carnation), pakalana (Telosma cordata, Chinese violet) and others for about 25 cents each. 

As the ships rounded Diamond Head (Lē‘ahi), some departing visitors would throw their lei into the sea, believing that if the lei floated onto the beach it was a sign they too would someday return to the Hawaiian Islands.

In Waikīkī, lei were sold near the big hotels: the Royal Hawaiian, the Moana, and the Halekūlani.  In the 1950s the Honolulu Airport became a major lei selling area.  On Lagoon Drive near the entrance to the airport, the Territory of Hawai’i allowed lei sellers to offer their products, and even built fifteen thatched huts to accommodate the lei sellers.

[Photograph: Lei stands]


Lei Day and other Lei Events

May Day is Lei Day in the Hawaiian Islands.  On May 1, everyone is encouraged to make and wear lei.  Mainland visitor Don Blanding, a journalist and poet, helped popularize the concept of Lei Day. 

Some say the holiday has its origins in 1927 when, on May 1 in downtown Honolulu, some lei lovers gathered.  Others consider the beginning of the holiday to be in 1928 when Nina Bowman was chosen as the first Lei Day Queen.  1928 was also the year that Red Hawke penned the song, “May Day is Lei Day in Hawai‘i.”  

Lei Day became an official holiday of the Territory of Hawai‘i in 1929.  In 1934 the Honolulu city government began sponsoring a celebration of the holiday.  Most schools celebrate Lei Day with festivals, and there are many events held throughout the Hawaiian Islands.  Honolulu selects its Lei Day Queen on the first Saturday of March.

On King Kamehameha Day, June 11, the statue of the king who united the Hawaiian Islands is draped with many different types of lei, some more than 26 feet (8 m) long.  King Kamehameha’s statue stands in front of Ali‘iōlani Hale, a judiciary building in Honolulu.

The King Kamehameha statue in Honolulu is a replica of the original, cast by American sculptor Thomas B. Gould in Italy in 1883.  The original 9-ton (8-mton) statue was lost in transport, and then later found in the Falkland Islands soon after the duplicate statue arrived in Honolulu. 

The original statue now stands in front of the old Kapa‘au courthouse (now a senior citizen center) on the island of Hawai‘i, near where King Kamehameha was born.

The King Kamehameha Hula Competition celebrates the ancient practice of hula, and many spectacular lei are worn by the participants (the 29th annual competition took place June 22, 2002 at the Blaisdell Center Arena). 

Other events in the Hawaiian Islands that are celebrated with plenteous lei include Aloha Week and many local and statewide hula events, such as the Merrie Monarch Festival.  Numerous island parades also display plenteous lei, often on pā‘ū riders on horses adorned with extravagant displays of lei and greenery. 

The King Kamehameha Floral Parade, which has been an annual event for about 90 years, stretches out for nearly 4 miles (6.4 km) from downtown Honolulu to Waikīkī with colorful pā‘ū riders, floats and brass bands, including the Royal Hawaiian Band. 

Beginning at ‘Iolani Palace, the parade passes by the statue of King Kamehameha and then takes Punchbowl Street to Ala Moana, then following Kalākaua Avenue to Kapi‘olani Park.

[Photograph: Floral Parade]


Lei Making Methods

The following are the different ways that lei may be made:

Ø                  Wili (twisted),

Ø                  Hīpu‘u (knotted),

Ø                  Hili (braided),

Ø                  Haku (mounted)

Ø                  Humupapa (sewed onto backing)

Ø                  Kui (strung with a needle)

Ø                  Micronesian-style (tied or woven flat)


The wili method (wili means “to twist or wind”) involves winding flowers, leaves, fruits or ferns around a solid core.  Traditionally this core was made from a coconut palm midrib, a ti leaf, a piece of a banana plant stalk, lau hala, or more modern material (e.g., pipe cleaners). 

Wili also refers to the twisting of the material itself or to the process of twisting finished strands together.

The hīpu‘u method (also called kīpu‘u) involves knotting stems or vines such as maile into a lei.  The hili method involves braiding or plaiting material such as the pala‘ā fern.  The hili (braided) method is also used for making ti and maile lei. 

The haku method is similar to the hili method, but with flowers or fruits added during the plaiting process, or sewn face out onto a wreath of greenery.  The haku method is also used with various non-traditional flowers, such as zinnias, roses, chrysanthemums, and pansies. 

The traditional meaning of haku is “to arrange” or “to compose,” and involves incorporating the lei materials into a braid, securing the blossoms around a central core using ti leaf, a piece of banana stalk, hau, raffia or other material.

The humupapa method (also known as kui papa) involves sewing flowers and plant materials onto a backing, traditionally ti leaves that have been folded and deboned, or dried fibers of banana stalk.  Humupapa was also one of the methods used for feather lei.

The kui method involves stringing flowers (e.g., ‘ilima) or fruits through their centers lengthwise (kui pololei); stringing the blossoms crosswise through the calyx or corolla tube and arranging them around the string facing outwards (kui poepoe); or stringing the blossoms flat or crosswise through the calyx or stem and arranging them alternately on each side of the string (kui lau method, also now called lei maunaloa).

The Micronesian-style lei involves tying or weaving the stems and blossoms into a flat collar and securing them with bast or raffia.  This plaiting may be done with two, three or four strands.

[Illustration: Lei constructed using wili, hīpu‘u, hili, kui, haku, humupapa and Micronesian-style methods]


Stringing the Lei

For the needle to string together lei materials, ancient Hawaiians often used the nī‘au (midrib) of the leaf of niu (Cocos nucifera, coconut).  This coconut leaf needle is known as a mānai.  Sometimes a stiff stem of grass was used.

A Hawaiian proverb states, “I mānai kau, i pua ho‘i ka‘u, kui ‘ia ka makemake a lawa pono.” (“Yours the lei-making needle, mine the flowers; so let us do as we wish [-make a complete lei]”), meaning “You, the man and I, the woman; let us satisfy the demands of love. Said by Hi‘iaka in a chant as she embraced Lohi‘au at the rim of Kīlauea to rouse the jealous wrath of her sister Pele.”[ii]

Traditional fibers for stringing, tying and sewing lei included fibers of hau (Talipariti tiliaceum) as well as fibers of the stalk of mai‘a lei ‘ula, a variety of the banana plant (Musa species). 

Lei of ‘ilima (Sida fallax), known as kui ‘ilima, were often made using the fibers of the aerial roots of hala (Talipariti tiliaceum), which were finer than hau fibers.

[i]p. 41, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 333.

[ii]p. 134, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 1234.