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The kukui (Aleurites moluccana) is a tree with an American history restricted to the state of Hawaii, yet it is an unusual tree that fires the imagination of all who visit this island state. The amazing kukui symbolizes Hawaii in important ways. For many, its picturesque form is synonymous with the image of the Hawaiian forest. This most common of Hawaii’s forest trees can grow to 80 feet tall. Its light-colored leaves, covered with a silvery powder, also distinguish the kukui, as do the tree’s large, sometimes twisted trunks and branches. But whether it is because of the tree’s striking form, its eight-inch, maple-shaped leaves, its white flowers, or the whisper of its long and colorful history, the kukui remains a beautiful living symbol of Hawaii.

The Kukui’s Place in History

Long valued by the early Hawaiians, kukui was brought to the islands more than a thousand years ago by migrating Polynesians. For these early people, the tree was one of incredible bounty: canoes were carved from its buoyant trunks, and its oily seeds were strung together and burned as a sort of primitive candle. Oil pressed from nuts was also burned in stone lamps, with the residual material, or cake, being used to feed cattle and for crop fertilization. Dyes produced by crushing the covering of the nuts was used in tattooing, and a dye made from the root became a black paint for canoes. Two ancient uses of the kukui continue as favorites today: a relish, popular at luaus and other celebrations, is made from the roasted and chopped nuts of the kukui; and the festive leis that greet thousands of visitors to Hawaii every year are made of beaded kukui nuts.

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