Known fondly as the “backyard flower,” a humble lei of pua melia (plumeria) is perhaps more associated with Hawaiʻi than any other blossom.
In this week’s Kūkahekahe Cultural Conversations column, Hoʻokahua Cultural Consultant Manu Boyd KSK ’80 strings a special lei of mele and memories of the humble, yet beloved pua melia (plumeria) in celebration of our islands’ upcoming May Day.
The blooming branches on the colorful plumeria trees shade our gardens and have been prized for generations by those who admire their beautiful flowers. Known fondly as the “backyard flower,” a humble lei of pua melia (plumeria) is perhaps more associated with Hawaiʻi than any other blossom. In the verdant landscapes of our homes, the plumeria is remembered in song. The sweet fragrances of plumeria may not immediately be associated with the urban sprawl of Honolulu, Oʻahu, but today we take inspiration from mele that string together the sights and sounds of these beloved places.
Our first mele, “Papakōlea,” moves us throughout Honolulu, but a particular verse takes us to the first pua melia in our lei – Makiki. Although it is attributed to celebrated musician Johnny Almeida, this mele may have been written by beloved Papakōlea kupuna Elizabeth Kekaau Wright, who was also fondly known as “Grandma Puha.” The third verse begins “I Makiki hoʻi au me kuʻu aloha, i ke kui pua lei pua melia; At Makiki, I was with my love, stringing garlands of plumeria blossoms.”
From Makiki, we make our way ma uka on Makiki Steet towards Puʻu ʻŌhiʻa (named for another venerable but threatened lei flower) which is now known as Tantalus. A barely visible ala hele (roadway) leads us to our second pua melia at Maunalaha. Less than 100 years ago, this close-knit community was known for the sweet plumeria blossoms which were cultivated in great number in each family’s yard for “kui pua” or lei stringing.
Making and selling lei became the bread and butter of old-time kamaʻāina families who needed income in the early and mid-1900s, and those in Maunalaha were famous for it. “Nā kau lei,” or lei sellers, from Maunalaha sold lei and greeted malihini visitors at Honolulu Harbor.
Not far away from Maunalaha is the well-known Papakōlea Hawaiian homestead, an area remembered in the beloved song “Welina Oʻahu:”
I luna kaulana o Pūowaina, melia mau loa ka waihoʻoluʻu; Above is the famous Pūowaina, plumeria growing in an abundance of colors.
Three kumu hula who have long been associated with Kamehameha Schools – Robert Cazimero KSK’67, Wayne Chang, and Leināʻala Kalama Heine – penned this expression admiring the well-known plumeria blossoms above Punchbowl Hill, which were as enchanting and inviting as their varied colors. Not far beyond Pūowaina and another flower for our lei lies Pauoa Valley.
Kaiponohea Hale KSK’68, a long-time cultural resource at Kamehameha Schools, now retired, continues to reside in Pauoa, his family home. This introduction to his kupa ʻāina lifestyle is expressed poetically by Hale in his mele “Pua Melia ʻAla Onaona:”
Hoʻoheno nei i kuʻu poli, no ka uʻi maoli o ia pua. So lovely i ka uluwehi, pua melia ʻala onaona; Cherished in my heart is the true beauty of this flower. So lovely in its splendor is the plumeria blossom with fragrance so sweet.
Many will remember that Hale led us in the morning “Wahie” gatherings at Kawaiahaʻo Plaza in the shade of a prominent “Singapore” white plumeria tree at the fence between Kamehameha and the Mission Houses Museum, always adorned in lei pua melia in the traditional practice of his Pauoa ʻohana.
A rainbow of colors abound in the myriad varieties of pua melia with equally interesting names and associations: the aforementioned “Singapore” is a pure white variety. “Plastic Pink” is the bright pink variety that continues to bloom in ʻĀlewa at Natsunoya Tea House. The common yellow melia is often seen blooming at pā ilina or graveyards throughout our islands. “Scott Pratt” and “Hilo Beauty” are the deep red pua melia that are strung into gorgeous lei. “Lilian Wilder” is the rainbow sherbert-colored flower that is remembered in Edith Kanakaʻole’s lilting mele hula: “Pua Melie.” Another pua melia variety is named “Hae Hawaiʻi.” This variety is a favorite of Kumu Hula Maelia Loebenstein Carter, and is named for the Hawaiian flag, which is the official flag of Kamehameha Schools, as insisted by our founder’s beloved husband, Charles Reed Bishop.
I remember my grandma’s yard in Kapahulu that was colorfully landscaped in pua melia, palapalai ferns, lā‘ī (tī leaf), mango trees, ʻiwaʻiwa (maiden hair fern) and potted anthuriums. When choosing island flora for your landscaping design, consider pua melia, a fragrant and useful choice that will provide colorful pua for lei making that will delight your ʻohana and friends for many years.
Hawaiian lei needles can be found at Longs and other stores throughout Hawaiʻi that are approximately 18” long with a hook at the base which requires no threading as is the case with sewing needles. Kite string or carpet thread can be doubled up in 40-inch lengths and hooked to the needle’s base. Kui pololei is the usual style where 10-or-so blossoms are strung and then pulled down to the lei string. Six needles full and your lei is complete!
We end our lei and helu, fond recounting, about our beloved plumeria here in the hopes that this fragrant lei will grace your shoulders soon. May 1 is known as Lei Day in Hawaiʻi, the fragrant holiday where lei pua melia are the standard. Leonard Hawk’s well-known Lei Day anthem is captured in the collective memory of generations of islanders:
May Day is Lei Day in Hawaiʻi, garlands for flowers everywhere. All of the colors in the rainbow, maidens with blossoms in their hair. Flowers that mean we should be happy, throwing aside our load of cares. Oh, May Day is Lei Day in Hawaiʻi, Lei Day is Happy Day out here!
The fragrant pua melia (plumeria) has inspired many a mele including “Pua Melia ʻAla Onaona” by composer and retired KS cultural resource Kaiponohea Hale KSK’68, shown here adorned with plumeria lei, singing with KS preschoolers.
This floral variety inspired Edith Kanakaʻole’s mele “Pua Melie,” which notes “Ua like kou nani me ke ānuenue kau mai i luna; your beauty is like the rainbow set above.” Cultural Consultant Manu Boyd recalls that his grandmother had this variety, which she called “Lillian Wilder” in her yard . Photo by Sig Zane at Piʻihonua, Hawaiʻi Island.