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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 24, 2006

Maile woven into Hawai'i's culture

By Duane Choy

Maile is popular as a lei.

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Its luxuriant fragrance and mana are symbolic at weddings, birthdays, graduations, hula festivals, award ceremonies, grand openings, anniversaries, political events, parades and anything that celebrates life and the human spirit.

Magnificent maile!

In old Hawai'i, lei maile was worn by all the people, chiefs and commoners alike.

Maile (Alyxia oliviformis) was linked with the presence and worship of gods: "Maile, ki ke kua ke ano wai (The maile and ki thickets are the dwelling places of these revered ones)," goes an old saying, according to Mary Kawena Puku'i's "Hula: Historical Perspectives." Maile was integral to adornment of the kuahu (altar) to Laka, goddess of hula, and some Hawaiians still believe that the vine's subtle pervasive scent clings to sites of ancient heiau.

Hawaiian mythology recalls four maile sisters and a fifth and favorite youngest sister. Evolving from this story line, Hawaiians have different names for the striking natural variants of maile: maile lau li'i (small-leaf maile); maile lau nui (big-leaf maile); maile ha'i wale (brittle maile); maile pakaha (blunt-leaf maile) and maile kaluhea (sweet maile).

Maile is usually a climbing shrub or vine, with glossy green pointed leaves arranged opposite to each other or in whorls. The flowers are petite, tubular and greenish yellow. The shiny, small olive-shaped fruits turn purple-black when ripe. Coumarin, a chemical in the plant, supplies the legendary fragrance.

Lei are fashioned kipu'u style, where leafy vines are loosely arranged on one plane, with each vine length tied in. In weaving lei maile, the leaves and bark of young vines are first stripped from the central wood of the twig, and then several of the supple plaits are twisted together as lei 'a'i (shoulder lei) or lei po'o (headband lei).

Historically, maile was a peace emblem in times of battle and a symbol of courtship and love. It was used to scent kapa cloth. The plant also was part of a medicinal treatment exclusively for chiefs. It was used in a puholoholo (steam bath) to sweat out an illness called kilikilioe.

Today, with loss of habitat and numerous other factors, maile is drastically reduced in Hawai'i. Much of the maile we buy here comes from the Cook Islands. Of the proverb "Maile lau li'i o Ko'iahi (Fine-leaf maile of Ko'iahi)," Puku'i writes in " 'Olelo No'eau": "Often used in chants. The fine-leaved maile of Ko'iahi in Wai'anae was considered the best on O'ahu for beauty and fragrance. After the introduction of goats, this beautiful and much-liked vine vanished."

In Hawai'i's homes, nothing better exemplifies the term "aging gracefully" than garlands of dried maile, magically kindling memories of special, heart-warming times in our lives.