Types of Temporary Lei
In ancient times, the lasting quality of a lei material was its least important aspect while scent, visual beauty or healing properties were highly valued. Greens and flowers were enjoyed for a day or less but that didn’t prevent Hawaiians from devoting significant effort to gathering materials and fashioning sometimes intricate lei.
Hawaiians used several methods for stringing or tying blossoms and greens: kui (stringing), hili or hilo (braiding or weaving), wili (twining), haku (mounting against a backing material), and kupu`u or hipu`u (tying together in a knotted pattern). For stringing, the dry midrib of a coconut leaf was used as a "needle." After all leaf material was removed, the midrib was smoothed with fingers, tapa or a coconut "cloth," the point was sharpened and a notch cut near the base end held the stringing material. Stringing material could be hau tree bark or banana fiber, materials that continue to be used today for certain types of lei.
Before Western contact, Hawaiians used indigenous materials or plants introduced from other parts of Polynesia. The most commonly used plants and flowers were hala or pandanus, lehua, `ilima, ti and maile.
Maile - a vine-like shrub with fragrant oval leaves - is perhaps the oldest and most popular temporary lei material. Gathered in mountain forests, the vine bark and leaves are stripped from the young tips of the plant and later intertwined and knotted. All levels of Hawaiian society wore maile lei. Maile was associated with worship of the gods, most especially with the gods of hula.
The chunky fruit of the hala tree (pandanus) - common throughout Polynesia and the Pacific - makes a fragrant lei material and its use is rich with legend and tradition. Hala is a symbol and token of love. It is often associated with passing a threshold of accomplishment but can also mark a fault or transgression and wearing the lei can therefore be a bad omen. In legend, hala was a favorite of Hi`iaka and her sisters. Incidents involving hala appear in the story of Hi`iaka fetching Pele's lover Lohi`au from Kaua`i and are found in the stories of other chiefs and gods as well.
`Ohi`a lehua is a native tree that grows on all the Hawaiian islands. The tree's flowers - ranging in color from white to yellow to pink or red - mature leaves (lau lehua), young leaves and buds (liko lehua) and seeds (hua lehua) are all used in lei making. The vivid red color - symbolizing sacredness - of the pua lehua, or lehua blossoms, and liko lehua makes these forms preferred in lei. Since ancient times, the association of red and sacredness with lehua crops up in chants and songs, including mele inoa or name chants for chiefs and the legends of Pele. Prized by the volcano goddess, lei made from lehua are still placed at the crater as offerings to Pele.
Most flowers and plants used by Hawaiians for lei were gathered from the wild. The `ilima, however, was one instance where they cultivated a plant specifically for its lei flowers. Ranging in color from yellow to deep orange, `ilima blossoms are paper thin and making a single strand to wear around the neck requires hundreds of flowers. Due to the effort and time involved in making an `ilima lei, they were highly prized by ali`i although - like maile - it was a lei anyone was allowed to wear. As a flower sacred to Laka, goddess of hula, `ilima was worn by dancers and offered on her altars. In the poetry of ancient times as well as modern-era songs, the `ilima flower is attached to the island of O`ahu; today it's the official flower of the island.
The ti plant as well as all types of ferns and other leaves are used to make a variety of green lei. Ti - found growing throughout the South Pacific - was used in a multitude of ways, twisted or woven or tied to serve as sandals, raincoats, packages for carrying or cooking, or as plates to eat from. Hawaiians believed the plant had healing powers and used it in rituals of cleansing and to ward off evil spirits. An open-ended ti lei is fashioned by tying together stems that have been stripped of their tough inner core. A cord-like lei is made by stripping and twisting the leaves. Ti leaves can also provide a central core supporting other lei materials that are sewn or tied on.
Hawaiians used many other plant and flower materials to make lei. After foreigners began arriving in the islands, new plants were introduced, many of which provided new colors, smells and textures for an increasing variety of lei. Today's lei often include roses, carnations, plumeria, tuberose, jasmine (pikake), gardenias, marigolds, pansies, violets and other types of flowers.