The Hala Tree in Hawaii

Travel agents, have clients about to travel to Hawaii? If so, they might be interested in the story of one of most culturally important trees native to Hawaii. Hint: it’s not the coconut tree because, surprisingly, it’s not truly native to Hawaii.

Unknown to most people outside of Hawaii, one of the trees most emblematic of the Aloha State is the iconic hala tree. The hala, or Pandanus, tree is of great cultural, health and economic importance, not only in Hawaii, but also in many island nations throughout the Pacific. Hala trees are typically found along coasts and low lying areas. They can grow up to 30 feet high and are characterized by its long, sharp, spiny leaves and system of roots that individually shoot downward and diagonally from the lower part of its trunk.

It was first believed that the hala tree might have been of the many so-called canoe plants brought to Hawaii by the first ancient Polynesians who settled on the islands. But recently, fossil remains of the tree were found that predated the arrival of Hawaii’s first settlers. So the hala tree is truly native to Hawaii, although the first Polynesians settlers could have also brought hala seeds along with them on their journey to Hawaii. One legend says the hala tree is so abundant because Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, once got entangled within its roots and leaves; and in her anger, she ripped out the tree so violently she spread all its seeds all over the Hawaiian Islands.

The ancient Hawaiians had many important uses for the hala tree. The fruit the hala tree, which has a pineapple like shape, was used for a wide range of medicinal purposes, in making dyes as well as was occasionally eaten as food. The fruit itself is made up of 50 or more angular, wedge shaped clusters called keys, which were often dried and strung together to make ceremonial leis. The roots were also used in medicines while the trunk of the tree was sometimes used in wood making. The flowers of the tree were used in weaving certain types of ceremonial mats and in making preservatives for ceremonial feather works.

But foremost among the uses of this important tree was the making of lauhala, literally meaning in Hawaiian, “leaf of the hala.” Lauhala was the ancient Polynesian art of using the leaves of the hala tree and weave, plait or braid them into mats, baskets, hats, thatching, sails, garments and many other household items. Using and preparing lauhala to make such items required much skill and involved a long and arduous process. You can see example of ancient Hawaiian lauhala arts and crafts in places like the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Today, travelers to the Hawaii can still find many fine contemporary examples of lauhala artwork in the form of hats, mats and baskets. The techniques that the ancient Hawaiian once used are essentially the same one employed by today’s artisans in the Aloha State. Visitors readily can find and purchase contemporary luahala arts and crafts in souvenir stores and gift shops throughout the main Hawaiian Islands.

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