Lei Flowers: What Is Used to Create a Traditional Hawaiian Lei
Were you one of the 9.3 million people who visited the Aloha State in 2017?
If so, you were likely greeted with a beautiful necklace of lei flowers. The lei dates back thousands of years to the goddess Kuku’ena, who–according to legend–brought seeds to the islands for lei making and traditional medicine.
Regardless of how leis got started, one thing is for sure: they remain an integral part of Hawaiian culture.
Have you ever wonder what kinds of flowers are used in leis? Are there different types of leis for different occasions?
In this post, we’ll reveal some common lei flowers and interesting facts about the traditional Hawaiian lei.
Popular Lei Flowers
Let’s start with a rundown of eight of the most popular flowers used in lei making.
1. Okika (Orchid)
Thanks to their beauty and sturdiness, the orchid is one of the most common flowers used in leis. You’ve probably seen them in white or purple, but they also come in shades of pink, yellow, and green.
The most popular type of orchid is the dendrobium variety. It’s been used in lei making for over 200 years and comes in an impressive 1,200 species.
2. Pikake (Arabian Jasmine)
Pikake is the Hawaiian name for Jasmine and translates to “peacock.” The white blossom was originally brought to the Hawaiian islands by Chinese immigrants.
Its scent is mild and bright, making it one of the most popular choices for flower leis. The pikake is commonly seen in wedding leis and leis for other special occasions.
3. Melia (Plumeria)
Melia, also known as plumeria or frangipani, commonly comes from the island of Kauai. The five-petal starlike blossom was first introduced to Hawaii back in the 1800s and is now grown commercially for leis.
Plumeria comes in a spectacular array of colors, including white, pink, yellow, and red. Its scent is fragrant, sweet, and delightful. In addition to a lei, many visitors to Hawaii enjoy wearing a blossom behind their ear.
A word of caution–be careful if you see plumeria growing in the wild. The tree contains a milky sap that’s poisonous to humans, so it’s best to keep your distance.
A tuberose lei is made from the night-blooming tuberose plant. The flowers grow on elongated stalks up to 18 inches long that make them perfect for leis or bouquets.
The scent of the tuberose is unmistakable. It’s considered one of the most fragrant flowers in the world and produces a rich, sultry scent.
The most common variety is white or cream-colored, although they sometimes appear light pink or purple too.
5. Pua Male
Pua male, also called stephanotis, is often referred to as Hawaii’s wedding flower. In fact, “pua male” translates to “marry flower.”
Originally from the island of Madagascar, this variety of jasmine was introduced to Hawaii hundreds of years ago. Loved for its waxy, delicate white blooms and seductive fragrance, it quickly became the flower of choice for Hawaiian weddings.
Interestingly, pua male grows on a woody vine that can be used as a base for the lei. It’s notoriously temperamental and hard to grow, making it even more valuable to the wearer.
6. Ti Leaf
Feeling lucky? A ti leaf lei is believed to bring good luck to the wearer, making it a popular choice for graduations and other major life events.
Don’t let the name fool you–the ti leaf plant has nothing to do with tea. It’s actually in the same group as asparagus, yucca, and agave. The leaves are traditionally green, although there are also red, orange, and yellow varieties.
A tea leaf lei is made by braiding together the leaves of the plant. Blossoms of different flowers can also be woven in to add some color.
Another beloved flower for Hawaiian leis is made from Malaysian or Micronesian ginger. Its strong, seductive fragrance makes it a popular choice for women.
Ginger leis are commonly given for anniversaries, birthdays, and major life events, such as retirement.
A ginger lei can be worn with the flowers either flat or feathered. For a pop of color, it’s also possible to weave more colorful species in with the ginger flowers.
With its Mediterranean origin, you may not immediately think of ponimo’i, or carnations, as a popular choice for lei flowers.
The red or white flowers were first brought to the Hawaiian islands by Protestant missionaries in the 1800s. Women traditionally wear white, while men wear the red variety.
The carnation experienced a surge in popularity in the late 1800s, as it was the favorite flower of King Kalakaua.
Popular Types of Leis
Now that you know the most common types of flowers in leis, let’s take a quick look at the most popular styles.
1. Traditional Lei
A traditional lei is worn around the neck, but here’s an expert tip: Don’t wear it like a necklace!
If you want to rock your lei like a local, position it so it’s draped evenly across your shoulders. Equal parts of the length should hang across your front and your back.
2. Head Lei
A head lei, also known as a haku lei, is a crown or headdress made of flowers.
Although not strictly traditional, it’s experienced a surge in popularity in recent years. Head leis are ideal for wedding ceremonies, luau parties, and other festive occasions.
If a neck lei or head lei seems too over-the-top for you, why not consider a tasteful flower bracelet or corsage?
This discreet style is the perfect way to ease into the Aloha spirit.
Final Thoughts on Hawaiian Leis
Whether it’s orchids, jasmine, or plumeria, lei flowers are always a fragrant and delightful sight.
The good news is you don’t have to wait until your next trip to Hawaii to experience them. You can order beautiful, fresh flower leis and have them shipped right to your home.
Interested in learning more about flowers, leis, and Hawaiian culture? Be sure to check out our latest blog posts.