The Hala Tree and the Art of Lauhala

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

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 had value.

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 indeed.

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 available.

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 thin 'cords'.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.