It was a beautiful, fragrant hala lei but, could I – or should I – give it to a stranger? A friend warned that it might send an “inaccurate message,” particularly because it was intended for a man. I consulted Kawena Pukui. She wrote, “For some individuals, there remain misgivings related to making, giving and wearing of hala lei. These concerns come from a definition of hala.” You see, the word “hala” means “a slip, failure, error or mistake,” so perhaps when embarking on serious business, a hala lei should not be made, accepted or worn. However, hala lei are otherwise appropriate, particularly so on New Year’s Day. A cultural saying, “Ua hala ka makahiki,” means “The old year has slipped away.”
The hala fruit cluster, ʻahui hala, is comprised of individual yellow, orange or red, hala key (kike), that contain a nut, a white edible seed composed mostly of dextrose (sugar) and starch. In old Hawaiʻi, kike seeds were a child’s snack. Today, the orange and red keys make a very handsome lei with a pleasant hala scent. To simplify removal of the kike for lei-making, start by removing the pani, or the odd shaped kike at the bottom of the cluster. Then kike are easily removed. Cut away some of the inside of each key and string the key on a heavy string or cord.
In old Hawaiʻi, fishermen did not go out to sea when hala trees were dropping their bright kike on the shore, as they knew high seas would smash their canoes. The hinano blossom of the pū hala is a male blossom. In old Hawaiʻi, the dried flower was used for perfuming tapa cloth, as foreigners used sachet. The dried hinano bracts also were split, very finely, and were woven into greatly prized mats.
Lāʻau lapaʻau (herbal medicine) uses the ule hala (aerial or pendant roots). The cap is removed from the tip of the root, exposing the yellow, and an inch or more is cut off and used in various medicines. This root part is a source of vitamin B. Walking canes and the ʻukēkē (musical bow) were also made from the hala root. Fibers of the ule hala from a female tree were used for straining ʻawa and for stringing lei. The female pū hala trunk has soft wood. The wood of the male pū hala trunk (kumu hala) is firm, and it makes good calabashes, troughs and boards for mashing sweet potatoes. Only male trees bear conspicuous hinano (blossoms). The muʻo hala, or leaf buds, are used in lāʻau lapaʻau. These young leaves were mostly used as medicine, after a wilting process done by passing the leaves over an imu.
Our ancestors used pū hala leaves (lau hala) for numerous domestic uses. Pū hala was planted by seed near homes, however, it also grew wild, in large numbers along coastlines and in valleys. Many groves were planted to serve domestic uses. Fine mats were woven from the muʻo hala, or immature hala leaves. And mature lauhala was woven into a variety of mats and sturdy baskets for carrying and storing numerous domestic items (clothes, blankets, and nets) and occasionally were crafted into ornaments. Women collected, cleaned, prepared and rolled the leaves into large coils, later to be woven into items for domestic purposes. These same processes are used by weavers today. Lauhala was also woven into mats for interior walls of hale (homes), or beds to sleep upon, and for table tops (a surface to place cooked food upon for consumption) and, even, peʻa, or sails for large canoes. In dry areas, where pili grass was lacking, hala leaves became exterior thatching for hale. Today, lauhala is woven into the traditional items, as well as modern ones, such as purses, fans, hats, placemats and napkin holders.
Pū hala (hala tree), today, serve mostly as ornamentals around large buildings and in gardens. Its appearance is uniquely artful, with long leaves grouped in spirals that hang from the ends of its branches. And, its trunk stands on many, long, aerial roots. A well-groomed pū hala has an appealing, picturesque look.