With palm-fringed blue lagoons, gorgeous beaches, lush rainforests, soaring volcanoes, and cascading waterfalls – there’s no place on earth quite like the sunny islands of Hawaii.
So, it feels about right that the little tradition meant to welcome you to this paradise is just as exotic – yes, we are talking about getting lei’d!
Leis perfectly symbolize Hawaii. Their beauty and fragrance are to be enjoyed in the moment, but even when they fade, their spirit of Aloha lives on.
Fun Fact: There is no “s” in the Hawaiian language, so “lei” is both singular and plural when speaking Hawaiian.
If you are planning to visit Hawaii between the last week of April and first week of May, don’t be surprised to find the locals buzzing about everything lei. May 1st of each year is officially Lei Day in Hawaii.
The celebration starts in the morning and often continues into the next day. Each island is known for a different type of lei for its people to wear during the festivities.
Here is an overview of the most popular and traditional leis you may come across:
Purple Orchid Lei
You may have seen a purple orchid lei at airports and luau greetings. The main reason why they are so popular and commonly found is that orchids are sturdier than most other flowers and have a longer life.
Plus, they have no scent, making them perfect for those who might be allergic to certain fragrances.
They can be worn for any occasion – graduations, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, ceremonies, blessings, or just because you feel like it! Purple orchid leis are also used by some bakers and decorators for decorating cakes and creating unique centerpieces.
And since these orchids are edible, they can be used as a garnish at a buffet.
Fragrance: Little to no fragrance
Life: 5-6 days
Pikake Lei (Arabian Jasmine)
Pikake flowers belong to the Jasmine family, so they pack a strong scent. The pikake flower symbolizes love and romance in Hawaii, which is why these white blossoms are considered a familiar part of the old courtship ritual and the surest way to a lady’s heart.
The word “pikake” means peacock in the Hawaiian language and was bestowed upon the flower by Princess Kaiulani, who loved the colorful birds. The flower was brought to the island sometime around the 1800s and soon became a favorite of the royal family.
The lei is made by stringing the closed buds of the flower. These buds burst open over the next day when not kept in a refrigerator, releasing their addictive scent.
Fragrance: Floral, sweet, delicate, heavenly, intoxicating (we could keep going!)
Life: 1-2 days (Pikake is a very fragile flower, so keep it in a plastic bag in the fridge and don’t touch it unnecessarily until it’s time to wear it.)
The tuberose flower signifies friendship, congratulations, and commitment. It is native to Mexico and was brought to Hawaii only a few years ago.
It is a white and super fragrant flower that is made into a lei by either the humu (basting) method or kui (piercing) method.
Two or more strands of the night-blooming flower are intertwined to create the lei, which can be worn by men or women at any occasion. The tuberose flower has 10-15 petals that also look stunning in hairpieces, bouquets, and corsages.
Fragrance: Sweet (like gardenias)
Life: 4-5 days (if refrigerated in a damp paper towel or an airtight container)
Puakenikeni means 10-cent flower; pua means flower and kenikeni means ten cents. The name comes from visitors who arrived in Hawaii by boat in the early 1900s and could buy puakenikeni lei for ten cents.
The flower comes from pua trees, which have great spiritual significance in many cultures. For example, the Tahitian legends say that the first-ever pua tree was brought to earth from the 10th heaven by forest god Tane.
In Mangaian culture, it is said the tree guarded the entrance to the land of the underworld spirits.
The flowers are very delicate and easily bruised, so be careful while handling your puakenikeni lei. The color of the flowers also tends to change, so don’t freak out if your lei is creamy white in the morning and orange in the afternoon!
If you’re buying this lei online, the color change will happen during the shipment. This means your lei will most likely be some shade of yellow or orange.
Fragrance: Sweet with notes of jasmine, waterlily, and clementine
Life: Up to 3 days at room temperature (don’t refrigerate this lei or it will turn brown)
Lei Po’o (Haku Lei) – Flower Crown Lei
Lei Po’o (haku leis) have become all the rage now – and not just in Hawaii. They are woven or braided leis with flowers, leaves, and ferns woven or braided together to keep everything in place. Po’o means head in Hawaiian, and haku means to braid.
These can be made using pretty much any flower you want, but they’re usually made from orchids.
One tip we have for you is to make sure you buy a good quality haku with a smooth inner side. The inside of this lei will rest against your head, and if it’s not made well, it can feel uncomfortable or even painful.
Many people let their haku lei dry and keep it for the memories or as a decorative piece.
Fragrance: This depends on what type of flower and leaves the haku is made from. If it’s mostly made of orchids, it will have no fragrance.
Life: 5-7 days (keep it refrigerated inside a plastic container or wrapped in a paper towel)
A maile lei is considered sacred and was mostly worn for the worship of gods. The lei is made from the vines of the maile plant leaves, which are believed to bring good luck and protect the wearer.
Leis made from dark green maile leaves are also used to communicate reverence, devotion, and a desire for peace.
To create this lei, the stems are first stripped off the bark and then tied into loose open knots. It is generally worn as an open-ended lei draped loosely around one’s shoulders.
Also known as the “royal Lei”, maile leis were prized by the Hawaiian royalty and given to denote respect and honor.
Fragrance: Woodsy with a hint of vanilla and spice
Life: Up to 3 days (when refrigerated)
A butterfly lei is usually made from orchids because these flowers are probably the sturdiest and longest-lasting. To make this visually stunning lei, each petal is carefully folded inwards to create the shape of butterfly wings.
Since these lei take a lot of meticulous work, they are rare to find compared to other types mentioned in this post.
Due to its unique appearance, this lei is considered a good choice for occasions where you want to stand out from the crowd, like your graduation or wedding ceremony.
Fragrance: Usually none (if it’s made from orchids)
Life: 6-8 days (when refrigerated)
Single Strand He’e Berry Lei
This is a twisted-style lei made of small red he’e berries and is a really popular option for men. The he’e berry is also known as the Christmas berry because of its bright crimson hue.
It grows in abundance in the Hawaiian rainforests, but be careful; these festive-looking berries should not be eaten raw. The berries are also called Octopus tree berry, since they grow on long branches that look like “tentacles”.
If you are looking for a long-lasting and bright lei, this one is the perfect option. Often woven together with foliage or ti leaves, these leis can stay fresh for several days.
Fragrance: No fragrance
Life: Up to 5 days (when refrigerated)
It is a common sight in Hawaii to see graduating seniors covered in leis made of money and candy. Money leis take a lot of time to make because the maker has to be careful as to not damage any of the bills, but gosh, they are super fun when you’re on the receiving end!
As you can imagine, dollar bills are strung together to make this lei, but the way these bills are folded can be as imaginative as you want. For example, they can be folded into the shape of flowers, butterfly wings, frogs, leaves, bow ties, or anything else.
The process of creating a money lei is an important one as it essentially involves creating intricate pieces of art. If you want to give it to a graduating senior, taking the time to make it by hand will be much more meaningful than just buying one.
Micronesian Ginger Lei
A lei made from Micronesian or Malaysian ginger is very popular among women because of its intricate appearance and strong and seductive scent. It can be worn with the flowers either feathered or flat.
The species of ginger used to make these leis originated in India and was brought to the islands by the early Polynesians who fell in love with its intoxicating scent.
The long, narrow-shaped flower is also used in perfumes because of its unique scent. Leis made from just the Micronesian ginger flowers will be white unless they are woven with other color flowers or foliage.
Fragrance: Aromatic, warm, forest-y
Life: Up to 7 days (when refrigerated)
History of the Lei
A lei is more than a decorative necklace (or crown!) of flowers – it’s also one of the nicest ways to say hello, congratulations, I love you, goodbye, or I respect you. The custom of giving leis can be traced back to the very roots of Hawaii.
Legends say the first lei was made from lehua blossoms and given by Hi’iaka (the sister of volcano goddess, Pele) to Pele.
Many centuries ago, leis given to the royalty were always accompanied by a bow, since it was forbidden for a commoner to raise their arms higher than the king’s face or head.
The tradition of giving a kiss with a lei started sometime around World War II; it is believed that a young local girl kissed an officer on a dare, then quickly gave him her lei, saying it was an old custom. She was fibbing then, but it sure caught on fast!
Making leis is a tropical art form. All leis are created by hand in a variety of traditional patterns. Some are strung, some braided, and some twisted. Some are sewn with bits of leaves and ferns, while some with hundreds of tiny shells and blooms.
Every island has its own special flower that the locals use to fashion their leis. On Maui, the choice is lokelani, a small rose. Oahu likes ilima, a small orange flower. Kauai prefers mokihana, a fragrant green vine and berry.
For the Big Islanders, it’s lehua, a delicate but large red puff. Lanai likes the kaunaoa, a bright yellow moss. Molokai’s lei is made of kukui, which are white blossoms from candlenut trees; while Niihau uses seashells to make leis which can be worth a small fortune.
What Types of Events are Leis Used For?
Residents of Hawaii can be found wearing leis on birthdays, weddings, graduations, retirement parties, funerals, bridal showers, and more.
College and high school graduates can be seen wearing so many leis that they reach their ears or higher.
One occasion that you’ll find almost every Hawaiian wearing a lei is May 1st of each year. “May Day is Lei Day” is a really popular phrase, in fact, you may have heard the Hawaiian song “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii”, which was composed in 1927.
Where To Find The Best Leis
You can find leis at the Lihue Airport, supermarkets, and of course, florists. If you have a limited budget, head over to Maunakea Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown or Kaimiminani Drive in the Kona Palisades subdivision, where a lot of shops sell inexpensive but well-made leis for as little as $5. At most lei shops, you can find a simple lei for $10 and higher-end leis for $25 and up.
If you’re looking for a custom or special-occasion designer lei, we recommend Michael Miyashiro of Rainforest Plantes et Fleurs. He makes incredibly intricate and eco-friendly leis, which are pricey but so worth it.
The shops lining the streets of Mōʻiliʻili are also stellar for quality leis made from roses or Micronesian ginger.
See Also: Hawaii in September
If you are ordering a lei online from the US mainland or you want to take your lei back to the mainland, keep in mind that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits certain flowers, fruits, and berries used in Hawaiian leis, from entering the mainland to protect against dangerous pests.
So, before you buy the lei, ask the seller to confirm that it doesn’t include anything that is prohibited, such as mauna loa, jade vine, pandanus fruit, berries, citrus fruits, citrus-related leaves, flowers, or plant parts.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Different Types Of Leis?
There are many different types of leis with a wide variety of materials and techniques used to make them.
Flowers, leaves, foliage, seashells, feathers, nuts, bones, vines, tree bark, and seeds can be incorporated to make a lei. The varieties of lei discussed above can give you a good idea as to what the locals usually wear.
As for the lei-making or weaving techniques, there are different styles:
- Haku or Hili (A braided form; it is usually made by braiding together 2-3 strands of vines or ferns. Haku will use at least two types of different floral parts, whereas hili uses only one.)
- Kui (a piercing method; one or more materials are pierced with a needle and strung together)
- Po’o (a head-mounted style)
- Hipu’u (a knotted style; each flower stem is knotted together and then the next stem is strung through the knot to make a chain)
- ·Hilo (a twisted style; a rope is made by twisting two strands of the materials, which is usually ti leaves)
- Wili (a twisted style; a coil is twisted, winded, and wrapped so materials can be held in place)
- Humu (a basting method; a sewing stitch is made to attach the material in an overlapping pattern)
What Are The Flower Necklaces In Hawaii Called?
A necklace or garland of flowers given in Hawaii is called a “Lei”. It is usually made of orchids or jasmine blossoms, and is typically about 46-cm or 18-inches long.
What Is The Meaning Of A Haku Lei?
Some would say a haku lei is a lei made for the head, but haku is actually the method of braiding a lei together using multiple different parts of a plant.
What Are The Best Flowers For Leis?
While all kinds of exotic flowers are used to make leis, orchids tend to be the most popular choice because a) they can last several days without wilting, and b) they don’t have any fragrance so even those who are super sensitive or allergic to floral scents can wear the lei.
What Are Some Traditional Leis?
Every island has its own traditional lei:
- Hawaii: Lehua lei
- Maui: Lokelani lei
- Oahu: Ilima lei
- Kauai: Mokihana lei
- Niihau: Pupu lei
- Lanai: Kaunaoa lei
- Molokai: Kukui lei
- Kaho’olawe: Hinahina lei
What Are Some Popular Non-Flower Leis?
If you’re not a fan of flowers or simply want a longer-lasting lei, you can find one made from land or seashells, fish teeth, fish and animal bones, silk or fabric, paper, feathers, plastic flowers, candy, or money (dollar bills).
The Wrap Up
If you’re anything like us and have “get lei’d in Hawaii” on your bucket list, you’ll be ecstatic to find that you won’t have a hard time finding someone to do this for you when you visit Hawaii.
Leis have been around for centuries and have a wide array of meanings, symbolism, and occasions to wear them.
Whether you’re celebrating the classic “Lei Day” on May 1st, a friend or relative’s wedding, or just wanting to flaunt a beautiful accessory, you’ll be sure to find your own personal “most popular” lei while visiting spectacular Hawaii!
Mahalo for reading our post! Until next time, Aloha!