Nowadays the vegetation seen from the main roads through Hamakua is mostly eucalyptus with patches of pasture and abandoned weedy former sugar fields. Most of us remember, almost half a decade ago, when sugar was the most common plant in fields along the highway. In between the era when the land was purely native forest and the time when it was cleared of forest for sugar, large areas of Hamakua were covered with Kukui trees.
Kukui is a Polynesian introduction, one of the more than 30 kinds of plants brought by settlers from southern Polynesia because of their usefulness. Kukui well illustrates the ingenuity of the people of old in utilizing the qualities of plants. Isabella Aiona Abbott, in La`au Hawai`i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants, lists the following uses for kukui: adhesive (the sap), canoe building (the trunk), fire making (small pieces of wood rubbed with a softer wood), fishbait (nut kernels), healing (flowers, nuts, bark, leaves), kapa (oil and burnt shells as dye), wood finishing (canoes and containers), and tattooing (burnt nut and juice from husk). Others mention that the nut was also chewed by fishermen, who spat the oily residue onto wind-riffled water so it would smooth out and allow them to see into the depths. `Inamona, roasted and chopped nuts mixed with sea salt, makes a delicious relish. Toy spinning tops are still made from whole nutshells.
The Kukui was, because of its usefulness, planted everywhere it would grow in inhabited areas. With its pale leaves, dusted with granular particles that make it almost glow in sun or moonlight, Kukui is easily distinguished among other trees or shrubs. In their authoritative book, Native Planters in Old Hawaii, Handy, Handy and Pukui comment that a broad strip of Hamakua, between the shoreline and the upper elevation forest of koa and ferns, was. “…before the era of early sugar plantations, completely covered by kukui forest.” What a sight it must have been from a distance, from high points or from the waters off the coast, to see the large band of pale kukui crowns!
Kukui is, in the traditional culture, regarded as a kinolau (body form) of Kamapua`a, the hog-god associated with Lono, the bringer of rain (and therefore of crops). Glades were opened in the kukui forests and taro was planted in deep holes in which was placed the plentiful refuse of the kukui, which constantly drops leaves and branches; sometimes, apparently only in Hamakua, trees were felled and taro was planted in the decayed remnants.
The tree is one with which I have a personal affinity. I recall that the first time I gathered the leaves of a kukui to make a lei for one of our youngsters’ graduations, I was drawn to a particular tree I had seen in my explorations just above sugar fields not far from where I live in Ka`apahu Homesteads. Going after work, I drove to the area just before dark and found the tree in the gathering dusk. By the time I had picked the leaves, about 60 of them, it was dark and a little spooky. I hustled out of the forest, back toward my car, and just before I got there, a pueo glided silently out of the trees and flew about 10 feet above my head. I stopped in my tracks, and my feeling grew that this was an event of some significance as the bird circled back and crossed the air over me several times more.
I felt as if my activity had been blessed by this quietly powerful visitor from the forest and from some mysterious realm. One of many sayings about kukui in ka `olelo Hawai`i, the language of Hawai`i, conveys something of the special qualities one can notice about this wonderful tree: Ka malu halau loa o ke kukui – the long shelter of the kukui trees – with its full canopy arching over those of us fortunate enough to have the pleasures of being under them.