STORY BY SHANNON WIANECKI | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHANOALEIGH MARSON
In the epic Hawaiian tale Hi‘iakaikapoliopele, there is a scene in which the goddess Hi‘iaka watches young women diving into the sea, all of them wearing garlands of bright yellow ‘ilima flowers, their lei dazzling against the clear blue water. These days lei ‘ilima are rarely seen—and that’s a trend that should be reversed because ‘ilima (Sida fallax) is one of the few native Hawaiian plants that’s relatively easy to find. The hardy indigenous shrub is characterized by silvery heart-shaped leaves and shiny dime-sized blossoms. It belongs to the hibiscus family and grows wild in hot, dry environments. Landscapers often plant it in resorts and alongside roads.
In days past, Hawaiians planted ‘ilima bushes near their homes to have the plant at the ready for making lei and herbal medicine. Mothers fed their babies the tender ‘ilima buds and elders steeped the bark for steam baths. ‘Ilima is the official lei flower of the island of O‘ahu, and according to master lei maker Marie McDonald, the five-petaled flower was the favorite of Queen Emma— which might explain how the blossom got its reputation for being royal.
To make a single strand ‘ilima lei requires one hundred flowers, and since the petals are so petite, lei makers like to combine two or three strands. Handpicking and stringing together hundreds of tissue-thin petals is not easy work but the result can be stunning. Pierced and strung through the center, ‘ilima flowers resemble the golden feathers of the mamo, a spectacular Hawaiian forest bird whose plumage was used for making capes for royalty; today, sadly, the mamo is extinct.
Summer is the season to brush up on lei-making skills. Several celebrations— starting with Lei Day on May 1st and followed by King Kamehameha’s birthday on June 11th—require heaps of flower garlands. And if you happen to know any high school seniors, you’d better get busy preparing for their leiladen commencement ceremonies. A lei ‘ilima—a symbol of good luck—is a perfect gift for a graduate.