The Hala Tree
and the Art of Lauhala
by Veronica S.
When I first saw a hala tree, I was reminded of the
ancient trees in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I believe
they were called ents. They were very wise and lovable,
there were many of them, and they could walk. That sums
up the hala tree.
The hala, or pandanus, a native to the Hawaiian and
Pacific islands, has such long aerial roots, reaching
to the ground, that the whole tree appears to walk on
straight and sturdy stilts. Groves, slopes, and valleys
host the numerous trees. The sharp edges of leaves and
bark cut the careless traveler.
Legend says that the hala tree is so abundant as a
direct result of Pele's rage, whose canoe, on her first
landing ashore, got entangled in the resistant roots
and leaves. In her anger she ripped the trees in pieces
and threw them across the island, and the hala sprouted,
happy and wise, wherever it touched ground. Her anger
was fortunate, because no other tree has been as useful
to the Hawaiian people. From pollen to blossom to flower
to fruit, from leaf to bark to wood to root, all parts
It is said that the hala lei, made from the keys of
its pineapple-like fruit, is connected to death, and
eternal good-bye. Thus, wearing a hala lei can bring
bad luck. Around the new year, however, troubles leave
forever, and the lei brings good luck.
It is also said that the lei brings wisdom, and that
the pollen of the male flower, stirred in a woman's
food, makes for an ardorous and passionate night.
It is said that when children are like the many-rooted
hala on the mountain side, a mother has devoted children
Today, the hala tree is best known for the ancient
and sophisticated craft of lauhala weaving.* (Lau means
leaf). While contemporary weavers have adapted their
craft to a changing market in the west (purses, baskets,
napkin holders, and placemats), in the old days lauhala
was used for canoe sails, wall thatch, window-shutters,
roof lining, mats, yes, even for intricate garments
and loin cloths.
Techniques have hardly changed, a testimony to the
exquisite artisan ship of the early Hawaiians. Only
tools have adapted to modern times. For example, you
might prefer to use a knife for cutting and dethorning,
instead of the traditional sea shell.
As far as this technique, the best way to learn is
to find a Hawaiian teacher. There are classes around
the island. Many good do-it-yourself books are also
Once you start working with lauhala, the leaves will
guide you. They determine the whole process from selection
to finished product. Their rules will never change.
Rooted in legend, hala trees are like the ents, unchanging
in the change of times.
*To be correct, the preferred term is plaiting. 'Weaving'
applies to the use of the fibrous thin aerial roots
of a related tree, the 'ie'ie. Close-fitting coverings
around wooden or gourd calabashes show the excellence
of Hawaiian workmanship in the use of these pliable
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