In modern days, black kukui nut lei is a sign of vacation and a welcome gift to visitors to the Hawaiian islands. The meaning of the black kukui nut lei often gets lost in the mix of greetings and vacation plans, but the history of this particular lei goes back to the settling of Polynesians on the islands. Nearly 2,000 years ago, these settlers brought with them some of their tree seeds, kukui seeds among them.
Their Original Significance
Initially, kukui nuts had a number of uses, mostly for medicinal purposes. The oil of the kukui seed could serve as a moisturizer for the skin and a numbing agent for toothaches, and it could even treat rashes.
The Candlenut Tree
The nut’s most important use was as a light source. The seed could be easily lit with fire, and it could burn for a long time. This made it the main light source for ancient islanders during the night. This gave the seed its Hawaiian name, which translates to “light.”
The Deified Seed
Later, the kukui seed took on religious significance, serving as the physical manifestation of the Hawaiian god Lono. The god of agriculture, fertility, and peace, Lono was one of the most beloved deities of the ancient Hawaiian people, who saw him as their primary life-giver.
Now, Hawaiians view the kukui nut as a symbol of learning and education. They also see the fire it once produced for their ancestors as a symbol of enlightenment. With this new meaning, gifting black kukui nut leis as graduation flower leis is traditional to honor students who have attained a higher level of education.
A Seed of Many Meanings
The meaning of the black kukui nut lei has gone through many different transformations. Once used for medicinal purposes, then to celebrate the god Lono, and now to celebrate students and learning, the seed has traveled far and has always found a place in the spirit of Hawaii.