The Language of Leis

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As you might expect with a centuries-old tradition, those who practice the art of crafting Hawaiian leis have developed a language all their own, one consisting not of nouns and verbs but nuts and scented vines. Let’s dissect a few of the more interesting entries in the language of leis.

Maui Coastline


Centuries before the practice of offering tourists flower leis and kisses on the cheek upon arrival was created by travel companies, ancient Hawaiians gifted each other intricately woven chains of local flora to communicate love, mark kinship, appease superstitions and denote status. But only one type of lei is favored by Hawaii’s governor for official functions. Leis made of the ilima flower, the official flower of Oahu, were favored by Hawaiian royalty and are considered leis of distinction. At one point in Hawaiian history, such leis were so highly regarded that they were accepted as payment for one’s taxes.

Many leis manufactured today incorporate the bright yellow flowers in some way. While the Internal Revenue Service might frown on receiving a box of flowers in lieu of actual currency, ilima leis are still a great way to welcome guests and commemorate election night victories.


Maile leis are traditionally made by intertwining the plant’s fragrant leaves and stems into long, scented vines typically draped over the shoulders of school graduates and grooms, as they have come to represent strength and growth. Maile is also the preferred lei of hula dancers. The somewhat glossy green leaves, similar to bay leaves in shape, are commonly associated with Laki, goddess of dance, and are thought to contain motion.

As one of the earliest lei-making materials, maile leaves are incorporated into most leis purchased from a florist. Another Mai Tai would be a bit more effective, but sporting a maile lei is the more stylish solution to your two left feet.


Thanks to the variety of striking colors and the sweet fragrance, plumeria flowers, also known as frangipani, have persisted as an icon of the Hawaiian Islands despite only first being introduced to the archipelago by a German botanist in 1860. The islands’ most abundant flower, plumeria leis are the leis you very well may envision when thinking of Hawaii. This is the lei of choice when welcoming visitors to the islands as it commonly represents friendship.

Be careful who you present these fragrant and fragile leis to though. Because plumeria grows wild in cemeteries, it is considered bad luck for people in poor health. Sending these blooms to your sick friend may give off the wrong impression.

For Hawaiian vacationers interested in the beautiful variety of plant life on the islands, Maverick Helicopters’ Hana Rainforest Experience provides an intimate look at Maui’s remote wilderness. After a stunning flight over the north coast, you’ll land on a former taro plantation deep within the heart of Hana Rainforest. You’ll have plenty of time to do some exploring on foot, admire the lush landscape, and even sample some local fruits.

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