POSTED: 16 MAY 2006 - 8:00am

Kukui: The Candlenut Tree

Kukui is a medium size Polynesian tree that grows throughout the Hawaiian Islands

Birds and Plants of Kauai:
Kukui or Candlenut Tree
by Linda Pascatore on 19 March 2006

The Kukui is the State Tree of Hawaii. The seeds were brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians, who valued the nuts for their oil. Kukui nut leis, or necklaces, of shiny black or dark brown nuts, are very popular in Hawaii today.

A member of the Spurge family, the Kukui tree (Aleurites moluccana) is native from Polynesia west to southern Asia. It can grow up to 50 feet tall. It grows naturally on the lower slopes of the mountains and wet valleys, but will also grow in many other locations if planted.

The Kukui flower is small with five white petals, and grows in clusters at the ends of branches. The leaves are pale green with angular pointed leaves. They are easily identified from a distance by their pale leaves. The underside of the leaves are covered with a silver-gray powder-like substance. The scientific name Aleurites means “floury” in Greek.

at left a group of the white flowers of the tree - at right the fruit (or drupe) contaning the nut

The Kukui fruit, or drupe, is round with one seed or more oval with two seeds, and is 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. There is a hard green covering on the outside of the fruit, which turns gray when ripe and then decays when the fruit falls. Inside is a whitish shell around the seed, which turn black and hard when the seeds mature.
Many parts of the Kukui Tree were used by the Hawaiians. The oil of the Kukui was used for lighting stone lamps or pohokukui, torches or aulama, or the oily kernel of the seed itself could also be lit like a candle or kalikukui, thus the name Candlenut Tree. Several kernels were often strung on a coconut frond for a longer lasting candle. The oil was also used as a varnish.

The flowers, leaves, and round dark brown nut are used in leis. In ancient times, only the alii, the Hawaiian royalty, were allowed to wear Kukui nut leis. The flowers and leaves were strung together to represent the island of Molokai, whose color is gray-green.

Meal ground from the roasted nuts were used along with salt and limu kohu (seaweed) in a relish called inamona. The bark of the Kukui was used to dye tapa cloth, and the gum from the bark was used as an ingredient in tapa. The burned soot of the nut was used for tattooing, and for making designs on tapa cloth and canoes, and for staining surfboards. Kukui wood was used to make canoes.
There are many medicinal uses of Kukui. The flowers are chewed to relieve e’a or thrush sores in the mouth. The sap can be used to relieve chapped lips, cold sores, and sunburn. Mashed fresh nuts or the green sap are also used as a laxative. Various parts of the Kukui were also used in combination with other plants for various remedies.

an example of black kukui nuts in a necklace: color can vary from white, tan, brown to speckled

The Kukui Nut is featured in many Hawaiian myths and proverbs. It was considered an embodiment of Kamapua’a, the pig god. McBryde, an early plantation owner and leader on Kauai, was called “Kukui O’ Lono” by the native Hawaiians. The name comes from Kukui, which means strong, armored leader (like the nut shell), and Lono, the god of agriculture. Kukuiolono, a beautiful public golf course, now stands where McBryde’s estate once was.

Hawaiian fisherman would chew Kukui nuts and spit them out on the ocean surface to calm the waters, thus the proverb, “Spewed kukui nuts--calm sea”, which means the same as “pouring oil on troubled waters”. Crushed roasted Kukui kernels were also spread on the surface of the water to make a film. This formed a lens on the surface, and allowed the fishermen to see better underwater.

In a Tahitian story, a mother said to her son, “The seed was sown. It budded; it blossomed. It spread out and budded again and joined line on line, like the candlenut strung on one stem. ‘Tis lighted. It burns aglow and sheds its light o’er the land.”

For more on Hawaiian Nature see below:
Island Breath: Hawaiian Nature Menu
The Flora and Fauna of Hawaii
19 March 2006 - 10:00pm HST

Koae kea: The Tropic Bird soaring in flight it displays a swallow-like tail and striking back markings
18 June 2006 - 11:00am HST

Koloa Maoli: The Hawaiian Duck This mallard-like duck is now found almost only on Kauai