Power of the flower on Lei Day
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
If the width of your lei shows your personality, then sixth-grader Amanda Beaty, 12, has quite a big one.
The sixth-grader giggled as her friends clucked over her bright purple and green creation. The length of a pipe cleaner and width of a split tangerine, the kupe'e will adorn her wrist.
While this was the first time Amanda has used raffia to weave the vivid blooms tightly together, it wasn't her first lei. She remembers making a plumeria lei before, stringing the fragrant blossoms with poignancy and love.
"I made it for my granny," said Amanda. "She passed away. It was for her grave."
Across the Islands, the power of the flower will be felt in full spiritual force tomorrow when Hawai'i celebrates Lei Day.
Since the first laurel leaf wreath was placed on the heads of state in ancient Greece, foliage has held a special place in history. Some lei materials are revered for their medicinal properties, others for their delicate fragrance or beauty, even for their historical importance.
The blue stasis she's working into her wrist lei reminds Amanda of her granny, she said.
These materials had been gathered during a "safari" through the neighborhood, explained Susan Tanaka, who heads the city's Parks and Recreation Department after-school program at Enchanted Lake. She prepared for Lei Day by holding a keiki lei-making workshop.
This day, Tanaka instructs a group of five young girls. The morning newspaper is taped to the table, and they're using it as a guide; the width of a column of newsprint is marked in black.
"Try to keep within those lines," Tanaka said, adding that a lei po'o (head lei) is the length of a full page.
The girls hunker down, endeavoring to keep the ferns and tiny blooms and berries from slipping through their fingers.
CONNECTION THROUGH LEI
Lei-making is a labor of more than just love for Marie McDonald, a master lei maker who lives on the Big Island. When she strings together lei flowers, they are offerings, they are history lessons, they are connections to the ancestors.
McDonald is back at home after attending two funerals last weekend. Her voice caught in her throat as she talked about the lei she fashioned for these special women, both dear to her heart.
For one, she picked out the paniolo flowers of her past.
"I took care to make sure to put in that lei material of this area — 'akulikuli, forget-me-nots, hydrangeas, pansies — all ranching-type flowers that grew in the garden," McDonald said, adding that these flowers would have been in the lei that this woman would have made for her cowboy sweetheart in days past.
Even before McDonald starts a lei, she factors in salient points: What is the occasion? Who is the recipient? Will she present it in the name of one of the gods or goddesses — Ku or Pele or Laka — who are attached to a particular plant material?
"Hawaiian people always attach to the ancients," she said. "They never get disconnected. So when I make a lei, I am thinking about all that."
Native species are especially rich in back-story: In Hawaiian lore, gods had their favorites.
When Laka-Kapo (twin goddesses who shared the same spirit) was in a good mood, she was all about the maile. However, when her Kapo side came out, better make it hala in a hurry.
Pele went for lehua. Laka's mother was into 'ilima. Haumea, the earth mother goddess, was a la'i wearer. (La'i is a kind of lei using the leaf of the ti plant, though not the tightly braided lei of today, a fairly modern creation.)
Lei are history lessons, too: Those McDonald created last weekend honored the flowers the deceased women had grown up with, to rekindle memories for them and their families.
Though she's well-versed in native Hawaiian species, McDonald also uses non-native flowers if the recipient has a special affinity for them — since the lei itself will speak to their relationship.
"You can call it mana if you like, a spiritual, close feeling," she said. "... If it's a special person, you take the time to make the right lei. From giver to receiver, you know immediately what kind of feeling you have. It expresses a lot."
McDonald notes in her book, "Ka Lei," that blooms prized for their delicate scents, such as plumeria, pikake, gardenia, stephanotis and carnation were introduced after the arrival of Captain Cook. She also writes that when it was introduced early in the 1800s, caesalpinia pulcherrima, with its red and yellow blossoms and conspicuous stamens, so impressed the Hawaiians that they named it 'ohai ali'i, or "royal 'ohai."
According to McDonald, pikake had established itself by the close of the 19th century in the tradition of Hawaiian lei and was much prized.
But good luck last week looking for pikake, a bloom that's known for courting, for marriage ceremonies and for honoring women, in general. Mostly grown on Moloka'i, pikake farms have become scarcer in the past few years (see "By the Numbers, below).
'Ilima and pikake, especially after Merrie Monarch, are hard to come by, said McDonald, who urged people to grow their own. She even collaborated on the University of Hawai'i-Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources' comprehensive guide, "Growing Plants for Hawaiian Lei" (UH-CTAHR, oversize paper, $20).
"Sunday" Mariteragi, student activities coordinator and kumu hula at Kahuku Intermediate and High School, is a fan of pikake, which like 'ilima is a painstaking process. For 'ilima, the flower is taken apart and each delicate petal strewn separately; pikake has to be picked one tiny bloom at a time.
"A white, dainty flower, its fragrance is profound," Mariteragi explains. "It's an elite type of flower. You wear it to weddings, special events. Because it's so tiny and delicate to string, you had to be careful, (pikake) became special in itself."
The act of lei-making can take her to a different place — a parallel plane, if you will.
"There's something very spiritual about making a lei," Mariteragi said. "Like baking a cake and taking it to a family, it's coming with a lot of love. Hence the aloha part of it."
CHOOSING FLOWERS FOR LEI INVOLVES A LITTLE RESEARCH
Lei materials have much symbolism and legend behind them, explains Marie McDonald, author of "Ka Lei" and "Na Lei Makamae," on the art of lei-making.
'Ilima: These distinctive yellow and gold lei were painstakingly made and preferred by the royal family. They are associated with awards of great honor.
Maile: The lei of the people, for all classes, associated with worshipping the gods, especially patrons of the hula. It was also used as a peace offering on the fields of battle. Along with hala, it's also associated with lovemaking and courtship.
Hala: Both unlucky and not: It also washes away misfortune. (It was said if a fisherman on his way to the ocean met someone wearing a hala lei, he should turn around and go home.) Yet this lei is also given at occasions to mark the passing or completion of a venture, such as graduations. "It's a good lei, too," said McDonald, but adds mischievously, "unless your intentions are otherwise" when you're weaving it. The berries and flowers may both be made into lei.
Lehua: A symbol of strength, and a favorite of Pele. There's an old saying "Don't wear red lehua when going to Kilauea, for it will surely rain." After reaching the crater, lei of lehua can be thrown into the pit as offerings to Pele. The color red, too, was sacred to the gods. Only those beloved by gods dared to wear the lehua or nuku'i'iwi lei, "lest they be haunted by a headless woman carrying her head under her arm."
Pohuehue: Lei from these vines were said to have magical powers and sometimes used for bewitching. (Surfers have been known to strike the ocean waters with pohuehue vines as they wished for big waves.)
La'i: The ti plant was believed to have healing powers, and could ward off evil spirits. It also was the sacred symbol of the gods. In old Hawai'i, when women were menstruating, they were isolated and wore la'i lei (ti leaves) to protect them from uncleanliness. If they had to travel, especially across Pele's domain, they wore these lei to summon the protection of the goddess. However, the braided ti leaf lei is a fairly modern creation.
Limu kala: Today, people continue to gather limu from the ocean for a cleansing rite. If you are sick — emotionally, spiritually or physically — walking into the ocean wearing the lei limu kala, and letting the lei float free from your neck, takes with it the guilt or evil that caused the illness.