Common name: Candlenut Tree
Scientific name: Aleurites moluccanus
Where to Find: Low elevation forests and valleys, common along stream beds
Status: Canoe Plant (Polynesian Introduction)
The Kukui tree was named the state tree of Hawaiʻi due to its versatility. It has been cultivated by different cultures since 1300 BC, and was introduced to Hawaiʻi by Polynesian voyagers over 1000 years ago. This species is also known as the “candlenut tree”, since its most well-known purpose was as a light source – the nut oil was burned in lamps. The wood can be used to form canoes, the sap makes cloth waterproof and the roots form a salve that helps with infected injuries. The Kukui is truly an all purpose plant!
The nut oil in particular was very helpful for fishermen. One moʻolelo (Hawaiian story) discusses Makaliʻi, a famed fisherman and god of plenty, who was out on his boat when his brother was captured by a shark. He was desperate to save him, but the water was choppy and he was unable to see which way the shark had gone. In order to calm the waters’ surface, he chewed and spit kukui nuts into the sea, and the oils made it possible to see beneath the surface. He saw the shark and dove in to save his brother. Fishermen often utilized this method in order to see nets/traps from the surface, and know when they were full and should be pulled up. “Pupuhi kukui—malino ke kai” (spewed kukui nuts – calm seas) is a Hawaiian proverb about the usefulness of this technique.