Save money on your next flight

Skyscanner is the world’s leading flight search engine, helping you find the cheapest flights to destinations all over the world.

Hawaii is known for its lush forests, volcanic mountains, and pristine beaches. Its natural beauty and diverse ecosystems are reflected in its choice of state symbols, including the state tree. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the kukui tree (Aleurites moluccana) is designated as Hawaii’s official state tree.

In this comprehensive guide, we will uncover the story behind Hawaii’s state tree, the kukui. We’ll explore what makes this tree unique, its cultural and historical significance to Hawaii, interesting facts and uses, and why it ultimately became an iconic symbol of the Aloha State.

What Tree is the Official State Tree of Hawaii?

The Kukui Tree (Aleurites moluccana) – Quick Facts

The official state tree of Hawaii is the kukui tree, which has the scientific name Aleurites moluccana. Here are some quick facts about this iconic Hawaiian tree:

  • It is also known as the candlenut tree because its oily nuts were once burned like candles for light.
  • The kukui tree can grow up to 60 feet tall and has a spreading form with light gray bark.
  • Its leaves are bright green, soft, and elliptical in shape with pale undersides.
  • The kukui tree blooms with small white flowers that later develop into round fruits containing the nuts.

Appearance and Growth Habits

The kukui tree grows very tall and has long, spreading branches that provide pleasant shade. Its bark is very light gray and almost white, which contrasts nicely with its vibrant green foliage. The leaves are arranged alternately along the younger branches.

They have pale undersides and deep green tops that are slightly shiny.

This native tree grows well on the hillsides and slopes of Hawaii where it can get adequate moisture. It adapts readily to different well-drained soils. Trees grow fast when they are young but slow down as they mature. The oldest kukui trees have survived hundreds of years.

Significance to Native Hawaiian Culture

The kukui tree has great cultural significance in Hawaii. Ancient Hawaiians used all parts of the kukui tree and integrated it into legends and myths. They recognized its value and came to regard the kukui tree as a symbol of enlightenment and protection.

Various parts of the tree were utilized – the nuts produced thick oil that fueled stone lamps, illuminated grass houses, and were used medicinally by native healers. The flowers and leaves made vibrant lei garlands and dyes.

The bark and roots made a varnish and the trunk’s hardwood was excellent for carvings and canoe hulls.

According to Hawaiian folklore, kukui trees guided early Polynesian settlers to the islands. Today, this tree remains a beloved state emblem representing the light and heritage of Hawaii.

The History and Origins of Hawaii’s State Tree

Arrival and Early Uses in Hawaii

The kukui tree, also known as the candlenut tree, is believed to have arrived in Hawaii with early Polynesian settlers. Its nuts were used to produce candlelight by piercing the oily kernel and inserting a wick. The nuts were also used for a red-brown dye and the tree’s sap had medicinal purposes.

According to archaeologists, carbonized kukui nut shells found in Hawaii date back to around 1000 CE.

Mythology and Folklore

In Hawaiian mythology, the kukui tree is a symbol of enlightenment. According to legend, the goddess Hina provided the first kukui nuts to her son Maui to light his way through darkness. The curving branches and aerial roots of aged kukui trees are thought to represent the search for knowledge and wisdom.

Ancient Hawaiians believed the trees hosted ancestral spirits.

Later Uses and State Designation

More recently in Hawaii’s history, the oil from kukui nuts was used to fuel early street lamps. Kukui wood was also popular for making canoes, surfboards, and bowls due to its light weight and resistance to rotting. The tree’s sap was used for medicine and its bark for making a black dye.

In 1959, the kukui tree was officially designated as Hawaii’s state tree, highlighting its cultural significance.

Modern Uses and Ecological Value of the Kukui Tree

Kukui Nut Oil Production

The kukui tree, also known as the candlenut tree, produces nuts that have long been used by Native Hawaiians to produce oil for lighting purposes before electricity. Today, cold-pressed kukui nut oil is commonly used for skin and hair care.

Research has found that kukui nut oil contains essential fatty acids like linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid that help moisturize and nourish skin and hair.According to industry analysis, Hawaii produces over 50,000 gallons of kukui nut oil annually, largely for export.

Kukui nut oil production begins with harvesting the nuts, cracking them open, roasting or candling them, and then cold pressing them to extract the oil. The oil has a clear, light color and smooth, quick-absorbing texture.

It is particularly valued in skin care for its moisturizing properties and ability to help treat skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne. In hair care, kukui nut oil is known to help add shine, smooth flyaways, and moisturize dry, damaged hair.

Canoe Building and Crafts

The large kukui trees have also been invaluable for Hawaiian culture as the wood has been traditionally used to build canoes, surfboards, bowls, poi boards, and more. Kukui wood is light, smooth, and resistant to seawater, making it excellent for ocean voyaging canoes. Master Hawaiian canoe builders still harvest kukui logs by hand to craft these legendary canoes today.

Kukui trees also provide materials for beautiful Hawaiian crafts like lei, jewelry, and decorative bowls. The reddish kukui nuts are commonly strung into lei necklaces and bracelets. Wood from the tree is carved into bowls and other decorative items.

At Hawaiian cultural festivals today, you can still find authentic locally-made kukui lei, bowls, and carvings for sale as a testament to the continuing cultural significance of this versatile tree.

Environmental Value

As a native tree, the kukui provides important environmental benefits in Hawaii. Its canopy provides shade and habitat for birds and insects. According to the University of Hawaii’s forestry department, over 50 species of songbirds and insects have been documented relying on the kukui tree.

Provide habitat for native birds Apapane, amakihi, iiwi and pueo (Hawaiian owl)
Provide food for endangered birds Hawaiian crow (‘alala) with kukui nuts and nectar

The kukui is also relatively resistant to invasive pests, making it a particularly valuable native hardwood tree to help prevent erosion. The hardy kukui continues to play an integral role in Hawaiian culture and ecology today.


The story behind Hawaii’s official state tree reveals an integral connection between the kukui and Hawaiian culture spanning centuries. With its numerous traditional and modern uses, ecological value, and folklore origins, the iconic kukui remains deeply rooted in Hawaii’s heritage and way of life to this day.

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts