comscore The sweet smells of competition | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News

The sweet smells of competition

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now
  • The dancers of Mapuana de Silva's Halau Mohala 'Ilima gather ferns from the Waianae Mountains to use in their performances. Dancers from the halau make their own lei and wore palapalai fern during this kahiko performance in the 2002 Merrie Monarch Festival. (Dennis Oda /

Flowers and plants also provide a colorful sight

Before you see the parking lot full of cars or the 4,000 fans standing in line, clutching the most precious piece of paper in the islands — a ticket to enter the hula heaven that is the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo — a fragrance like no other floats past. Maile, ti, palapalai, plumeria and pikake blend, creating a hypnotic elixir for the senses.

It’s like the Maunakea Street lei stands on steroids.


Ilima, Oahu’s official flower, comes in several varieties and colors from light yellow to a deep orange-yellow. Making a lei from the delicate flowers of the ilima is truly a labor of love for an honored recipient; it was the favorite lei of Queen Emma. Fragrant maile represents the four mythical maile sisters closely associated with hula.


Ti leaf, la’i or ki in Hawaiian, is used to make skirts and lei. The pua kalaunu, or crown flower, is a regal flower, as it was Queen Liliuokalani’s most cherished blossom, and can be found in white or purple.


The sweet-scented pikake, meaning “peacock” in Hawaiian, was Princess Kaiulani’s favorite flower and is the subject of many mele (songs). The maile-scented laua’e fern was used for the adornment of the hula dancer. The variety mentioned in hula chants is rare, and a more common species is often used today.


The ohia lehua offers blooms in bright bursts of red, most commonly seen in lei po’o, or head lei. The flowers, more rarely seen in gold, white and pink, can often be found in lei along with the leaf buds. The palapalai fern, also used to make lei, is believed to be the kinolau (earthly manifestation) of Hi’iaka, Pele’s younger sister.

Sources: Bishop Museum Ethnobotany Database, Duane Choy (Star-Advertiser archives) and Mililani Allen for the World Invitational Hula Festival

Paula Akana, a longtime Merrie Monarch commentator with KITV, describes the moment before the dancers have even stepped onto the stage.

“The fragrance of their maile lei or fresh, green ti leaf skirts wafts in on the breeze. It’s overwhelming. You can almost see it as the smell sweeps in across the audience,” she said.

Often that audience is adorned with even more flowery plumage than a flock of tropical birds.

“It makes you wonder how they attach that many bird of paradise and anthurium to the side of their hair.” (Akana says a stylist anchors flowers to her hair “with a ton of bobby pins.”)

On location or watching the TV coverage of the hula performances from your couch, the kaleidoscope of colors is overwhelming and begs the questions: Is there a floral theme or flower of the year, a color? Who makes the lei? How do they keep them fresh?

And the biggest question of all: Where do all those flowers come from?

FOR Mapuana de Silva and the dancers of Halau Mohala ‘Ilima, the palapalai ferns come from many years of sweat equity.

“We malama the forest,” she explained. “Each year we put in three days of hard work in the Waianae Mountains taking care of the forest so we can gather our fern on our fourth workday of the year. It is important to us that we have greens from our own island.”

The workdays begin with an early morning hike up the mountain. The goal is to eradicate invasive species, replant endangered species and nurture the palapalai ferns needed for competition lei — kupe’e for wrist and ankle, lei po’o for the head, neck lei, and braided garlands for the pahu hula, the large drum.

De Silva says her kumu, the late Aunty Maiki Aiu Lake, encouraged her to train the dancers to make their own lei. With 20 or even 40 dancers, making lei and the ti leaf skirts keeps the cost down. The dancers dress one another and ensure the ties are strong and the elements of the costume will not go flying across the stage, costing precious judging points for a costume malfunction.

ANOTHER rule of lei in the halau is that everything goes with them when they leave Hilo after the competition. Every leaf and flower of the lei and the la’i, ti leaf skirts, go back in the containers and home to Oahu, even the leftover scraps and stems.

“We bring it all home, even the lei gifted by family and friends after we dance. We dry everything and burn or bury it. Once it is used for dancing, that’s all it is used for,” de Silva said.

All flowers must be fresh. The lei may be made by the dancers, the kokua (those adding their helping hands to the halau) or by lei makers who have long-standing connections to a halau. If flowers and greens are to be collected from a forest, halau must follow the rules. Some areas require permits. All areas require entering with respect and following the rules; no trampling on ferns or breaking branches, no overpicking or uprooting plants.

If plumeria is the flower in favor, everyone calls their friends and neighbors, and soon the trees on that island can easily be almost bare of blossoms. As for transporting, coolers filled with flowers, marked with the halau name, are stacked high at every airline counter.

Watching the dancers at Merrie Monarch leads to watching the audience trying to figure out just what flowers are actually in the lei on stage. Those in the know can identify native, indigenous, Polynesian introductions, post-contact introductions and naturalized flora.

For those in the stadium, the easiest flowers to name are the fragrant ones. TV cameras that zoom in make the “name that flower” game much easier for the home viewer: white and yellow ginger, ilima blossoms from Oahu, lokelani roses from Maui, ohia, ohai alii and ohia lehua, and plumeria from every island.

The flower that looks like strings of lavender pearls is pua kalaunu, crown flower, a favorite of Queen Liliuokalani. The sweetly fragrant pua kenikeni, called the “10-cent flower,” can turn from creamy white when it is strung to deep gold by the time the dancer gets on stage. Male dancers might wear pua kika, called the cigar flower. Strung in a round rope, this lei moves nicely on the dancers’ shoulders.

Though each island has an official flower — or in the case of Kauai, a green berry, Lanai, a yellow-orange air plant and Niihau, the white pupu shell — halau do not always wear the lei of their respective islands. Neither do they always wear the flower mentioned in the hula they are presenting. Traditionally trained kumu adorn the dancers with lei that are loyal to their training and tradition. And then, sometimes, halau wear lei that are totally new creations, not following any tradition.

Twenty years ago, the master lei and kapa maker and author of “Ka Lei,” Marie McDonald, traveled from her home and gardens in Waimea on Hawaii island to give a talk on lei making at Bishop Museum. What she said on that occasion has been repeated by lei makers and students in print, on the Internet and in circles where lei needles are flying to meet a deadline. She cautioned that true artists need to start with the traditional and then add to it, not being bound to old rules.

She said she likes to think of people in the year 3000 studying the past and saying, “Well, look at the difference. This is what they were doing with leis in the 1850s. Then, look at what they did in the 1950s and in 2050.” Then she asked whether everyone was listening, adding, “Evolve and grow better is my message.”

Lynn Cook is a freelance arts and culture writer who has danced hula for 25 years. Read her live blog from this year’s Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo at starting today.

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up