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What are Leis?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 21, 2024
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Leis are traditional Hawaiian necklaces made from freshly strung flowers, often fragrant yellow or pink plumeria; red, tufted lehua blossom; or delicate orchid. It is a custom in Hawaii that tourists are greeted with fresh leis as a sign of welcome and affection. A lei is also draped over the neck when one leaves Hawaii. Within the Polynesian culture, leis are given at special occasions such as promotions, special achievements, birthdays and graduations.

Leis can be made a variety of ways, but the most common is to string flowers through the center, one flower after the next, until the lei is complete. Plumeria, also called frangipani, is a popular flower because it is so beautiful and easily propagates. Plumeria alba is a cream-colored, five-petaled flower with a deep yellow center, while plumeria rubra is deep pink with a red center. The lehua blossom, on the other hand, resembles a miniature red pom-pom.

Hula girls often wear leis made from the shiny, green, oval leaves of the maile vine. The maile is associated with Laka, the fertility goddess of hula and music. Other popular leis are made from kukui nuts. The kukui or candlenut tree is the state tree of Hawaii. In the Hawaiian anniversary song Lei Kukui, a spouse uses the gift of a kukui lei to show extreme enduring affection.

Although people might associate leis with flowers, leis made of seashell, ivory, and even teeth each had meaning in Polynesian history. Today the concept has broadened and become commercialized to include any objects that can be strung together to form a colorful pattern. This can include candy leis, silk flowers and even plastic leis, used mainly as inexpensive party favors.

Leis are a beautiful sign of affection and joy. They spontaneously bring to mind the warm, clear beaches of the South Pacific, feasts, smiles, music and dance. Consider making your own leis, or if you prefer, buying leis for a special occasion or theme party. Fresh leis made of real flowers are available from specialty vendors for occasions like weddings or graduation parties, while inexpensive plastic leis are available by the dozen for your backyard luau. It's easy to be happy when you're wearing a lei!

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Discussion Comments
By somerset — On Jun 06, 2008

Flowers and the smell of flowers are abundant in Hawaii all year long. A beautiful tradition is to shower guests with a necklace made usually of flowers and sometime shells. Usually all the events and celebrations involve leis. With this simple, beautiful gesture, one shows a sign of respect and honor to the recipient of lei.

Each Hawaiian island uses its own official plant. For instance Oahu has ilima flowers that resemble hibiscus, while on Kauai, mokihana berry is their official plant. The Big Island has ohia flower, and Maui has pink lokelani. Niihau on the other hand uses white pupu shells. The official Hawaiian flower is yellow hibiscus.

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