Photo: Claire Kuʻuleilani Hughes

In 1959, the Hawai‘i Legislature named the kukui (candlenut) tree the official emblem for Hawai‘i because of its numerous uses and symbolic value.

The kukui tree served a variety of functions in old Hawai‘i. Among those uses, the kukui provided an adhesive, fish bait, dyes and pigments, medicines, and nuts for lei-making. The kukui was also used in fire-making, healing and tattooing. Kukui was made into storage containers, and its buoyant wood was used as floats.

Today, kukui’s best-remembered function is as a light source. The mature nut-meat’s oily-character provided enough oil to burn and emit light within the hale (homes, buildings) in old Hawai‘i. The ‘ōlelo (word) kukui means lamp, light or torch in Hawai‘i’s native language. The sum of its functions gave the kukui significant importance.

Kukui’s origin and introduction into Hawai‘i is uncertain. Its origin is not Asian, as most other introduced-plants. Kukui is native to Malaysia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Isabella Abbott suggests the seed (nut) made kukui easy to transport from any point in our ancestors’ 2500-mile migration route to Hawai‘i. The kukui grows easily in moist environments, and sizable groves are still seen on mountain slopes everywhere in Hawai‘i.

In old Hawai‘i’s lore and traditions, the kukui is considered the kinolau (body form) of the god Lono; more specifically, Kamapua‘a, the pig god, who is one of Lono’s family. Every pig represents Kamapua‘a. One kukui variety has a leaf with three-points that resemble the snout and ears of a pig.

Photo: Kukui Nut
Kukui, or candlenut, is the official tree of
Hawai‘i. – Photo: Forest and Kim Starr

Several groves of huge, old, kukui trees are part of Hawai‘i’s mo‘olelo (story, tale, legend). Kukui trees grow to massive size, given sufficient water and space. Thus, kukui groves can provide a shaded, spiritual, magical meditation area.

On Moloka‘i’s east-end is Lanikaula, or Ulukukuialanikaula (the shading kukui of Lanikaula). This was the secluded dwelling of Kalanikaula (the Heavenly Seer). It was customary to seal a vow there, by pounding a lock of the devotee’s hair into the soft wood of a kukui tree with a sharp stone.

On Kaua‘i Island, near Kīlauea, grew a small grove of ancient kukui trees. This sacred grove was named Kauhakake. On important occasions in history, Kaua‘i chiefs and their people would meet in council there. At Makawao on Maui was Lilikoi, a famous grove and place to rest, well-known for its fragrant and sweet kukui nuts. In Kona on Hawai‘i Island, the natives remember two famous kukui groves, Kuaukukuila and Kukuiala‘inamona. Also, below Kapāpala, a solitary kukui tree grew on a barren plain. Pele once rested in its shade.

Groves of kukui along the Hamakua coast, once known as the domain of Kamapua‘a, were cleared by commercial sugar planters years ago. Prior to clearing the kukui, this area was known to support great numbers of wild boar that fed on fallen kukui nuts.

Finely chopped, roasted kukui nuts mixed with a little salt make a delicious condiment for raw fish. A word of caution: It must be used very sparingly! Kukui is a very powerful purgative, eating too much can mean significant pilikia (trouble), even a trip to the emergency room.

There are several medicinal uses for parts of the kukui. I personally experienced only one – several times. When we were young children, my mother used the kohu kukui (also called pi‘iku or kulukulu a) on us. That’s the juice that oozes up into the “well” of a mature, green kukui nui, where it was disconnected from the stem. My mother would separate the nut from the stem, use gauze to collect the juicy kohu kukui, then wipe our tongues and inner-cheeks with it. That was to wipe away and clear our tongues and mouth of the “stuff” that caused colds. It is bitter, bitter, bitter! I still shiver at the memory. She laughed heartily at my questioning and complaining about the experience…once, well into my adulthood! My mother maintained, emphatically, that it works.