Virginia Beck

Nothing is more special than a haku lei. These are lei worn around the head. Lei po‘o is a Hawaiian term, but common use is haku lei. Technically, lei is both singular and plural, but again, common use is leis. Leis vary with the floral offerings of the gardens or countryside, and include elements of both common and precious.

They were used more frequently in the past to commemorate occasions. Since the 1970s and the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” they are seen more often. Each hula halau teaches the dancers how to harvest the leaves and flowers in a respectful manner, damaging neither the plant nor the landscape.

They ask permission, pray and make sure not to strip the plant, leaving it healthy to regrow for the future. This ensures there will be plenty for all; symbolic of the recognition and respect for resources that belong to the community, not a person.

In the forests, there are issues with off-island folks visiting, stripping and depleting the resources without giving back,. All our resources are shared resources, the land, the waters and the air.

There are also many ingenious ways of weaving the lei, since haku lei are usually more complex than just stringing flowers in a row.

I first learned with Irmalee Pomeroy at Kaua‘i Museum back in the late 1970s. It was wonderful. We made winding, or wili, lei after first preparing strips of the inner bark of the hau tree. The fibrous strips were about an inch wide, and we soaked them in water to make them supple and flexible. Now they are mostly made on strips of palm fronds, as they are often shed and easily available.

Next, flowers, ferns, leaves and supplemental items such as berries are gathered in small bunches. These are individually secured by winding strips of raffia, or green yarn, softly, so the flowers aren’t damaged, but firmly bound to the backing.

Many hours of preparing, gathering and handicraft go into each one; and each one is unique.

These are valued and often dried to preserve. A treasured one may decorate a lampshade, retaining colors and delicate blossoms.

You can order them from specialty lei makers or custom florists. However, those made by friends and family are keepsakes. The traditional art recommends them to honor any occasion, so you may see them at on dancers luaus, or on students at graduations. Inaugurations and ceremonial occasions are also opportunities to honor our legislators, educators and mentors.

One longtime practitioner is Elvrine Chow of Heavenly Hakus. I recently had the privilege of attending one of her workshops at the Kaua‘i Museum. A small group gathered in the courtyard, and Elvrine had provided all the materials. Her organization, teaching and helpful assistance made sure we all succeeded. The results were astonishing. Everyone’s delighted in the fragrances and textures, and the creativity was contagious.

No two were alike, and all were beautiful. I was probably the slowest, as I was oohing and aahing over everyone else’s work, and yes, we were all “talking story.” I met new and old friends, and discovered the books on haku lei making at Kaua‘i Museum. All are must reads, including “Heavenly Hakus” by Elvrine Chow.

Lei makers are all over the island. Heavenly Hakus uses Kaua‘i grown flowers, and will customize a workshop for your group. Blue Orchid in Koloa is easy for South Side folks, unless your ‘ohana includes a Palama, or Ali‘i Kauai Weddings, JC’s flowers in Kapa’a, and doubtless countless others.

A haku lei is a true gift of Aloha. Long lasting, just like Aloha.

  • Virginia Beck, NP and Certified Trager® Practitioner, offers Wellness Consultation, Trager Psychophysical Integration and teaches Malama Birth Training classes. She can be reached at 635-5618.