Sacred Plants Have Been Around Since Man’s Earliest Awareness of Spirit 

Many plants and flowers have deep cultural significance;  the red rose for love, the yellow rose for jealousy, or the white rose for purity.

Although there are deep emotions and cultural significance in these sentiments, these are not the “sacred” plants we will explore today.

The history of sacred plants is fascinating. 

Each culture has a unique story and powerful plants that reflect it.

In the category of plants many people call sacred, we have plants such as the lotus, which came from the God Vishnu in Hinduism. 

Then, there is Buddha, who was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree. 

And basil, which is said to have sprouted where the blood of Jesus fell. These are examples of the sacred plants we shall talk about today.

Quite often, these plants are associated with religious and spiritual practices. Therefore, they are spiritually symbolic. They nourish, delight, heal, and sometimes act as intermediaries between earth and the divine world. 

Over the centuries, Hawai’i has also found individual
plants to be sacred.
Hawaiians referred to them as Kinolau*.

Kinolau translates literally as many bodies. Kinolau refers to when  any plant, animal, or force of nature, such as rain, flowing lava flowing and air or ocean currents are an embodiment of a particular god or goddess.

That is why people well versed in Hawaiian studies refer to individual plants as sacred plants, such as the Five Sacred Plants of Hula. It is because each plant is an embodiment of a certain god or goddess. 

In Hawai’i, the concept of kinolau encompasses more than rituals and religious beliefs. It is a way of being, a way of life. There is no better example than the plants of hula, as the study of hula was and still is, a way of life. A passion that consumes most practitioners. 

In our blog about the History of Hula, you can understand more about why the tradition of using sacred plants is essential.

These 5 Sacred Plants are particular to the Kuahu Hula*

There are, according to some scholars, over 400,000 gods and goddesses in the Hawaiian Pantheon. And perhaps each one of them is embodied in a plant, animal, or force of nature. To narrow down our talk of sacred plants, we will focus today’s blog on the 5 plants of Hula.

These 5 Sacred Plants of the Hula are not the only sacred plants used by Hula dancers, yet, there would most probably not be any others without them. These 5 plants come from the beginning of memory and expand into a lifetime of culture and tradition. 

You will see each of these sacred plants at almost every traditional hula performance, where ancient hula, hula kahiko, is being danced. Here are the five plants you will usually see:

  • Maile – Maile is endemic to Hawai’i 
    • Laka is the Goddess of Hula and the Goddess of the Forest, so maile is one of her Kinolau*  
    • Maile lei are symbolic of the bonding of knowledge and the relationship with the forests
    • You can find maile in the forests from sea level up to 4500 feet
    • Maile is a plant with fragrant leaves and is a very popular lei for weddings and graduations
    • It grows in various shapes, sizes, and shades of green
  • I’e i’e – I’e i’e is indigenous to Hawai’i
    • It is the first plant, in ceremony, to set on the Kuahu Hula*, representing the highest rank in the forest   
    • It is also known as a climbing hala
    • Although it sometimes grows at sea level, it likes damp and wet climates.
    • The blooms are iridescent and they are considered a symbol of royalty
    • It often grows alongside `ōhi`a trees
  • ‘Ōhi’a  – ‘Ōhi’a is endemic and found on all islands except Ni’ihau and Kaho’olawe
    • The new sprouts, called liko, are used to make lei for hula kahiko*.   
    • ‘Ōhi’a and it’s flower, the Lehua, is the manifestation of many gods and goddesses – Kū, Hi’iaka, Kāne, Kapo and Laka 
    • The budding of liko has many colors and therefore serves as a symbol of children or new beginnings
    • Found mainly at higher elevations, smaller trees may be found along the coast and in dryland forests.
    • It is one of the first trees to grow in new lava flows
  • Halapepe – Halapepe is endemic to Hawai’i
    • Halapepe is kinolau of Kapo‘ulakina‘u, who is referred to as “the first goddess of sorcery,” an unpredictable goddess  
    • It is strictly used only on the hula alter
    • It is a cousin to the dracaena plant
  • Palapalai – Palapalai is an indigenous fern native to Hawai`i
    • It is kinolau to Laka, the goddess of hula. 
    • It is the 3rd highest on the kuahu (hula altar), and is primarily offered in lei form 
    • This lei is important as dancers will often wear a lei with palapalai for hula kahiko
    • Palapalai ranks highly within the forest. It keeps  the moisture and insures that the roots of the trees are constantly nourished
    • Fronds are very soft and are usually light to medium green in color
    • It is found in dry and damp forests, growing bigger and more lush in the wet forests

Because the plants are sacred – embodiments of certain gods or goddesses – the hula dancers/practitioners also have a specific protocol for gathering these sacred plants. It is done before their use in hula rituals, such as placing on the kuahu hula, and before special performances.

It is vital to be respectful when entering the forest to gather the sacred plants for the kuahu hula.  A Kumu Hula* will chant a protection chant, asking for protection, upon entering the forest. Next, the whole hālau* will chant, asking permission to enter the forest and collect what is needed.

One Kumu Hula said, “the forest is the realm of the gods and the other beings. It’s their home. We need to be respectful. As if entering another’s home. We are guests in their house.”

As guests of the forests, it is believed that too much noise attracts other spirits. These spirits can be nosy, or nīele*, and come to see what’s going on. It is best to pick quietly, be respectful and leave with gratitude. 

Gathering plant material isn’t a social party time. It reflects the cultural past, present, and future of hula.

Of course, we only pick what we need.   And, after it is used, it is returned to the earth.  Returning the plant material to the forest or your garden will help replenish the resources for the future generations to harvest the sacred plants.

Writing and Graphic Design by Sugandha Ferro Black

GLOSSARY* of Hawaiian Words

Hālau – Hula school

Kahiko – Ancient Hula

Kinolau – many bodies, divine beings embodied into plants, animals, forces of nature

Kuahu Hula – hula alter

Kumu Hula – hula teacher

Nīele – nosy

*Please keep in mind that all Hawaiian Words have many meanings. The meanings we share here are the specific translations for the words as they pertain to this particular blog’s subject matter.

❉ There is a variation of this tradition on different islands and for different hālau.  Some may honor 7 plants or a slight difference in 5 Sacred Plants.

All Photos, unless labeled, thanks to Wikimedia Commons