Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photos by Forest & Kim Starr
One of the sweetest Hawaiian traditions is the making and wearing of flower lei to celebrate people you love or places you’ve been. According to the ‘Olelo No‘eau, Mary Kawena Pukui’s book of Hawaiian proverbs, “Aia ka ‘ike ia Polihua a lei i ka mānewanewa.” (One proves a visit to Polihua by wearing a lei of mānewanewa)—in other words, a visit confirmed by returning with something native to the area—such as a lei made of mānewanewa from Polihua, Lāna‘i.
Finding native Hawaiian plants plentiful enough for lei making isn’t always easy; mānewanewa is an exception. The salt-tolerant shrub grows in lush thickets by the shore—not only at Polihua, but along beaches across the Hawaiian archipelago. Its silver-green leaves and small purple flowers poke through waxy green naupaka hedges and intertwine with beach morning glory vines. This oft-overlooked native can be found fringing the walkways of many a Maui resort.
Also known as pōhinahina (beach vitex), mānewanewa belongs to the fragrant mint family. Pinch a sprig and you’ll notice a pleasant herbaceous scent. Experts in Hawaiian la‘au lapa‘au (plant medicine) use the fragrant leaves to alleviate symptoms such as wela (a burning sensation) and nalulu (a dull pain in the head or stomach). Liquid extracted from steeped mānewanewa leaves is used in medicinal baths.
Making a mānewanewa lei can be as easy as braiding a few leafy branches together and knotting the ends. More complex lei po‘o (flower crowns) can be fashioned by weaving small but hardy mānewanewa cuttings together with other coastal plants. The flowers are particularly beautiful when paired with red blossoms or yellow strands of kauna‘oa (beach dodder). Its sagelike perfume is a sensual reminder of a day spent by the sea.