I’m sure you’ve come across the all-important kukui nut before. Whether you’ve bought a few of those stylish kukui lei, or you quickly Googled “kukui oil” when Lupita Nyong’o mentioned it as one of her skin-care secrets, the amazing kukui nut has certainly crossed your radar. But apart from making trendy cosmetics and long-lasting lei, the kukui nut has uses you may not know of! Kukui is a “canoe plant,” a Polynesian-introduced plant brought to Hawaii in canoes by its very first Polynesian settlers. Like all canoe plants, this impressive tree had to have many uses for the first Hawaiians. Here are just a few of them!
The English word for kukui is the “candlenut” tree, which gives you a clue as to one of its main uses. The oil that the kukui kernel produces is plentiful, and highly flammable. One of the most common ways that Ancient Hawaiians utilized this benefit was by stringing several nuts on a coconut palm rib. Then, the kukui nuts were lit, one by one, from top to bottom. This was also a rather reliable way to mark passage of time. The kukui oil was also used in other lighting applications, like ti-sheath torches.
The medicinal uses for Kukui are virtually countless. When roasted, salted, and crushed, the seeds make a delicious condiment known as inamona, which you can find on traditional Hawaiian poke—and it’s used quite sparingly in that application. When eaten in larger doses, though, inamona acts as a potent laxative, and was used as such by ancient Hawaiians. The sap, which is found when the stem is broken off of the green flesh surrounding the nut, was used to treat chapped lips, cold sores, and other mouth sores and thrush in children. Roasted, mashed kukui nuts, and kukui leaves, were used as a topical cure for rheumatic joints or deep bruises as well.
It wasn’t just the nuts and leaves that were utilized; like virtually all canoe plants, every part was useful to the Hawaiians. The bark of the kukui tree made an excellent reddish-brown dye for kapa cloth and cordage. Back to the nuts, after burning, their ashes were used to make a rich, black dye for both tattooing and painting canoes (often made of kukui wood themselves) and kapa cloth.
When you pick up a beautiful lei, made of polished kukui shells, or decide to try out the latest kukui-oil cosmetic product, remember how useful this special little nut was—and still is—to many Hawaiian people throughout history. Ask your Tour Guide to point out its silvery-green leaves along the Road to Hana, or show you the nuts fallen on the rainforest floor. Canoe plants had to be useful in many different ways to be brought to Hawaii by its ancient settlers, and it’s easy to see why kukui made the cut!