Stringing a lei of kou

21 09 2020

The kou tree in the front garden is blooming and dropping delicate orange-colored blossoms. When strung into a flower lei they look like ilima.

The Hawaiian-English dictionary has this description:

“ 1. n. A tree found on shores from East Africa to Polynesia (Cordia subcordata), with large, ovate leaves, and orange, tubular flowers 2.5 to 5 cm in diameter, borne in short-stemmed clusters. The beautiful wood, soft but lasting, was valuable to the early Hawaiians and was used for cups, dishes, and calabashes. (Neal 714–5.) (PPN tou.)”

I keep the lei cool in the open air between wet newspaper, avoiding the refrigerator, and re-dampen the newspaper as needed.


After wearing, you may save the lei. As it dries to a rusty orange, snug up the flowers together along the craft ribbon to wear again!

Aloha nō,


The lei on display at Kapiolani Park

1 05 2018

HONOLULU—Every May 1st floral designers make lei for the Hawaiian Lei Contest sponsored by the City at Kapiolani Park. A horticulturist identifies the plant elements in the lei upon entry, and then organizers line up the creations near the parking lot between the park Bandstand and the Waikiki Shell.

The display opens to the public to view with the untying of a ti leaf lei around 12:30 p.m. after the Royal May Day Court sees it first.

Today I was first in line along with Evelyn who I just met. We are both lei makers, too. Although we did not enter anything, we came for ideas! Check out my images. You can practically smell the flowers, can’t you? The lei in the last photo in the series took the Mayor’s Grand Prize.







Mayor’s Grand Prize is awarded to Melvin T. Labra for his wili style lei of ‘ohai ali‘i, palapalai, and kukunaokala.

May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii!


In my world and why we create

14 08 2016

In my world, much of what I do is creative. Creating interesting and beautiful things brings me satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, joy. I don’t initially do it for money although, come to think of it, most of my income has come from making fine art and from designing and writing publications and lesson plans. I’ve yet to turn a buck composing or singing or cooking!

Last night a volunteer appreciation party at Kaneohe Yacht Club for Pacific Cup race workers reminded me of other benefits of creating and of involving others in the process. Those benefits are respite and therapy.  I led a crew of 25 in making lei garlands for the arriving boats from San Francisco.

When I arrived late to the party (bad highway traffic), I learned it was announced the free drinks were courtesy of the monetary donation I made from partial proceeds of the lei that happens to be a product we sell. Well, that is not exactly the kind of therapy I was thinking of ;-), but we did make money, and it gave me satisfaction to spend a morning writing checks to the lei makers and two organizations that collaborated for the activity. We made lei!

Carol Silva
During Pacific Cup time I’ve noticed, or sometimes the lei makers tell me, some come to make a lei or two or three in order to take a break from a difficult situation at home.

A family member was in the hospital, or a spouse was ill, or they got childcare so they were free to come. They made the time or they took the time to come and do something they loved to do and be among other people. That they would tell me this touched my heart, and I am so very glad and grateful I could provide the creative outlet.

Creating interesting and beautiful things also brings freedom and peace. Namaste. ~ Rebekah

Giant lei garlands for yachts say ‘Aloha!’

20 07 2014

Good morning, studio fans! Until today we’ve been hanging out at Kaneohe Yacht Club where I and my team have been crafting lei for some of the arriving boats in the Pacific Cup Yacht Race from San Francisco.

I say “until today” because the thunder-lightning-rain storm that is ripping the Islands has closed roads, etc., and we are taking a rest this morning, enjoying the waterfalls, retrieving wet pets from outdoors, and surveying the flooding and mudslides. We can hardly imagine what it must have been for the small-boat racers at sea last night. What a light show!


Here’s Jennifer, Kaneohe Yacht Club member, thrilled with her first boat lei. She and Nancy, pictured below, discovered they went to the same high school in Minnesota. Now they meet on Oahu!

We are making 40 lei, wili style, each 12-feet long and uniquely beautiful. All the plant materials are gathered and donated voluntarily. Our lei makers range from first-timers to professionals. Our team is composed of folks from Kaneohe Yacht Club, Ko‘olauloa Hawaiian Civic Club that receives scholarship funds from the lei sales, and my friends. It is a fun, social activity that we do every even-numbered year.

Michele Kamakea Kalili of Ko‘olauloa Hawaiian Civic Club is from a family of professional lei makers that go way back. Her father Gus Kalili made and sold lei out of his woodie along Lagoon Drive on the way to the old Honolulu International Airport back when.

Kamakea of Ko‘olauloa Hawaiian Civic Club is from a family of professional lei makers who go way back. Her father Gus Kalili made and sold lei out of his woody along Lagoon Drive on the way to the old Honolulu International Airport back when.


Kathleen Sattler, my glee club sister, welcomes the break from her otherwise stressful schedule this week.

Thanks to all the volunteers on all of the Pacific Cup committees.

Carol Silva

Carol, experienced in making lei for hats, crafts her first giant one for a boat.

Nancy and Pat

Friends Nancy and Pat enjoy helping with lei construction.

May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii

1 05 2011

Today, let’s make a lei, wear a lei, give a lei! May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii! This lei is strung kui style with yellow plumeria and orange kou blossoms from the garden. Aloha to you.

"Mommy tricked me. I came when she called "Walkies!" but she just wanted to give me a lei and have me pose. She even gave me a big smooch on my nose." ~ Alice Brown

Copyright 2011 Rebekah Luke

If you are new to Rebekah’s Studio, here’s my 2010 Lei Day entry. This year’s celebration at Kapiolani Park Bandstand—the 84th annual— runs until 5:30 p.m. today.

Gathering kukui nuts and re-landscaping for a play space

18 09 2010

Aged kukui nuts prior to cleaning and polishing into Hawaiian jewelry

The studio and its surrounding garden of fruit trees and raised vegetable beds is not my choice for a toddler to play in, so I’ve cleared out the heliconia under the avocado tree to plant a soft thick green ground cover of clover with Miss Marvelous in mind. She likes to explore and play in the outdoors.

Those following the progress of Miss Marvelous may see what she looks like at 16 months this September. I snapped this image in the car on a shopping trip. She loves shopping!

The heliconia patch was there since purchasing our place. It has survived with not much care for more than 26 years. When the patch was full and thriving, gathering the fallen avocados in August was like hunting for Easter eggs in a forest.

Off and on since trimming the plants to the ground I’ve dug up roots, runners, sprouts, as well as rusty iron pieces from the old VW bug, now in its last disintegration phase.

Just by running my fingers through the coarse soil, I found lots of old, old kukui nuts, whole ones and halves of different colors—black, brown, white, multi—from the neighbor-in-the-back’s tree on the other side of the panax hedge. They were easy to find, a meditative search akin to shell seeking.  In all our years here I never gathered many.

Today I thought I’d rescue the nuts for my friend Kamakea who turns them into jewelry, and I saved them for her.

The kukui fruit with its outer skin covering or husk still intact. On the tree they are a gray-green color.

Next I looked for kukui nuts that were freshly fallen for another friend, Cathy, who makes inamona, a roasted nutmeat relish mashed with paakai (salt) and used in Hawaiian cuisine.

It is a long process to prepare inamona, about as long as it takes to make kukui nut jewelry. Cathy said, as long as the outer covering is still intact, it’s good for inamona. Kukui nuts are seasonal, and they are starting to fall now.

Sure enough, in and among the fallen dried leaves in the corner of the lot were these round fruit. So I scooped those up too. When I have a few more, I’ll deliver them to Cathy.

The kukui tree (Aleurites moluccana) is amazing. It has many uses. It is a canoe plant originally brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesians who arrived here by canoe. You can spot the tree in the mountains by looking for light, mint-green-colored leaves.

In Hawaiian culture the kukui is one of the kinolau (forms taken by a supernatural) of the Hawaiian pig god Kamapuaa; the shape of the leaf resembles the head and ears of a puaa (pig). Freshly plucked leaves with stems on are arranged together by knotting the stems make beautiful lei (wreaths). In laau lapaau (Hawaiian medicine), the mashed kernel, as in inamona, is a laxative and prescribed for relieving constipation.

It is often called the candlenut tree. Kukui means light. Hawaiians skewered the oily kernels and burned them for light. The oil is the preferred oil for polishing wooden utensils for food, such as umeke (bowls) and platters. You can now find the oil on the commercial market as a cooking oil and in cosmetics.

The kukui tree also provides wonderful shade. Mahalo e ke Akua! Combined with the canopy of the avocado tree and a ground carpet of hardy clover, I envision a delightful play space for Miss Marvelous. She’ll just have to duck during the month when the fruit fall.

Copyright 2010 Rebekah Luke

The story of the boat lei

21 07 2010

Every two years in July about 50 sailing yachts compete from San Francisco Bay to Kaneohe Bay for the Pacific Cup, “the fun race to Hawaii.” It’s organized and hosted by Pacific Cup Yacht Club in Northern California and Kaneohe Yacht Club in Hawaii. The boats have handicap starts and sail under the Golden Gate Bridge and across the sea to arrive around the same time, hopefully, and in time for the parties ashore on Oahu.

Delicate Balance arrives at Kaneohe on a cloudy afternoon. Two boat lei welcome her.

Many years ago I became the volunteer chair of the Boat Lei committee for KYC. I’m affectionately known as the Boat Lei Lady! A boat lei is a giant 12-foot garland of fresh, tropical foliage to greet and honor the vessel that carried her skipper and crew safely across the ocean.

Some call it a bow lei because it is attractive draped over the front end of the boat. Because most of the Pacific Cup yachts tie up stern to, we renamed it boat lei. It may be fastened anywhere as a decoration. The custom of presenting the lei has become a Pacific Cup tradition.

It takes many hands to make the boat lei for this event. The finished products are beautiful works of art and much admired. Event organizers inform the racers, family and friends they may pre-order the lei so it’s ready for their favorite boat when it arrives.

Last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday my crew made 45 boat lei! Many thanks to Michael and Bobbi for the promotion in California and for handling the sales from the e-store. That was a big help. Thanks to Kaneohe Yacht Club for lending the workspace. And, of course, mahalo (thanks) to all the lei artists for their remarkable team effort. Some KYC members also pitched in, and we are grateful for their contribution.

Haleaha finishes her 12-foot lei made with variegated Song of India clusters and red ti leaves

How do we make the lei? And how are we able to make so many? I’ve been asked. I will tell you! But first a little history and a funny story.

LITTLE HISTORY. In the early years I worked with  members of Hale Kuai Cooperative, a Native Hawaiian organization, to design the basic lei. We wanted cut foliage that would hold up in the sun, rain, trade winds, and salt air and look pretty for at least a couple of days in the elements.

We settled on lai (say LAH-EEE, leaves from the ti plant), lauae (say LUH-AU-AY , a fragrant yet sturdy fern … Phymatosorus scolopendria, syn. Microsorium scolopendria), and multi-colored croton leaves. Our friend Kapa showed us how to use floral wire to bind the foliage; she learned the use of wire from her kumu hula. And Aunty Havana, who is a master at making hat lei, showed how to combine everything into lovely creations, once she figured out how to translate small to big. The lei became a product of the Co-op.

Green and red ti leaves. When picked from the stalk, they are called la‘i.

In more recent years, I have partnered with Koolauloa Hawaiian Civic Club to supply the boat lei. Volunteer members and friends gather the plant material from their gardens and from the mountains, donating the material and their time to the project. Other members and friends, who are artistic and enjoy lei making, work professionally as floral designers for a few days and assemble the lei.  The net proceeds from the sale of the lei provide scholarships for Native Hawaiian club members and/or their children.

Clover's lei

FUNNY STORY. The very first year of my boat lei experience, we made the lei fine, but I had not given any thought to delivering the lei. I was so involved in providing a product that it did not occur to me that the boats would arrive at any time of day or night, 24/7. OMG! It was too late to organize any shift work.

Pekelo's lei. Yellow-and-green croton and red ti provide accent color among the other greenery.

DH (Darling Husband) has a sailboat moored at the yacht club. He and I monitored the ETAs, and for an evening arrival, we would catnap on his little Mugquomp and wake up as the radio crackled to announce a boat had crossed the finish line. As we climbed out of our bunk and put on our jackets, for it was cool and a little rainy, we were fascinated and impressed by the radio conversation between Iwalani of the Escort committee and each arriving yacht. In her very calm, reassuring, professional, and gracious way, Iwalani gave the information and instructions on how to enter and come down the channel (with coral reef on both sides) to the dock at night. We had enough time on foot to greet the boat with a big lei.

DH and I were very short on sleep that year. Someone later suggested that we arrange for the Leis and Trays committee to deliver the lei. Brilliant! That committee is much larger and greets the boats with Hawaiian music, lei and mai tais for the captain and crew. Why not the lei for the boat too?


The style of the lei is known as wili (say WEE-LEE), meaning to wind. We wind by hand—one must have strong hands to tug—using wire instead of a natural twine or raffia traditionally used to make a hat or neck lei. Wire allows us to put the work down and makes it easier on our hands. Our lei are 12 feet long, but shorter lengths make lovely bouquets, wreaths, and table decorations. Allow enough time to gather & prep the materials and make the lei. It takes about two hours to make, excluding time to gather.

Each artist has his/her “line,” so do not worry that your lei does not look like someone else’s. It won’t. The variables are selection and placement of the plant material as well as the available supply of the greenery and flowers. Here is the basic way to construct the lei.

Ti, lauae, and red ginger combo

Materials to make one 12-foot lei:

1 kaau (which is 40) each of ti leaves, lauae, croton leaves. Be sure to leave about 4 inches of the stem on. The stems provide the slightly stiff backing for the lei. Do not strip the mid-rib from the ti leaf.

A few tropical flowers—such as, heliconia, red ginger, bird of paradise, bougainvillia clusters—with 6-inch stems to intersperse throughout the lei (optional)

One 24-gauge paddle wire from the floral supplier or craft store. One paddle is enough for one and a half lei, or approximately 18 feet total.

String to tie on the finished lei to the boat

Gloves (optional) to protect hands from croton stains

33-gal. plastic trash bag (optional)

Ululani's lei


Work surface such as a table or floor, hand clippers, scissors, spray bottle of water

Step 1. Gather and prep materials by sorting by color and size, cleaning, and bundling.

Step 2. Pick a palette of 3 or 4 types of leaves if you have a wide choice. Include ti and lauae in your palette.

Step 3. Take the tip of a large ti leaf and turn it under to meet the stem, shiny side out, bending it in half but not creasing it. Fasten the tip to the stem with the wire, winding it around the leaf 5 inches from the ends. Begin winding about 5 inches from the beginning of the wire, securing both the ends of the leaf and the wire together. Grasp the two ends of the leaf and the end of the wire with one hand (if you’re right-handed, use your right hand), and wind the wire with the other hand, going around about 5 times. Be sure to pull the wire taut. This is the start. You will use one continuous length of wire and not cut it until the end (unless the wire accidentally breaks).

Step 4. With the tip of the ti leaf facing up and pointing toward you, place a lauae leaf on top with stem pointing toward you. Wind the wire around 1/2 inch down from your start 3 times, again pulling taut. Next add some croton in the same way, 1/2 inch down. Then add another ti leaf. This grouping forms your pattern.

Step 5. Repeat Step 4. Alternate placement right and left, if you wish, to cover the sides. With each addition, come down about 1/2 inch. Remember to pull the wire taut as you wind so that your lei does not come apart.

Keep the width of the lei the same by checking the sections you did earlier. If your lei is getting wider (this is common with beginning lei makers), allow less material to show or leave more space as you add. Just be sure your wire is wound every 1/2 inch, catching all the stems. From time to time, turn your lei over to examine the back. Hold your lei up with one hand and give it a good shake to make sure it is secure. From time to time, spray the lei with water to keep it fresh.

Step 6. After the lei is the desired length, end it by winding the wire around itself about 10 times. Snip wire with scissors. Tie string with a square knot to the lei at 4 or 5 points as a way to fasten the lei to the boat.

Step 7. Keep the lei cool until ready to decorate. A cold air-conditioned room is ideal. Mist with water.

Step 8 (optional). For transporting or brief storage, roll the lei into a wreath and place in a 33-gallon plastic trash bag. Leave an opening for the lei to breathe.

And that’s the story of the boat lei. Enjoy your creation!

Copyright 2010 Rebekah Luke

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