On the eastern shores of Hawai‘i Island, six dancers stand facing an altar wrapped in kapa (bark cloth). As they chant a prayer for Laka, the hula goddess, two dancers adorn the altar with lei. The most venerated garland they offer is made with a sacred plant from the mountain forests: maile, a uniquely fragrant vine twisted and worn open, draped over the shoulders. Hawaiian legends link more than a dozen plants to Laka, but maile is paramount.
The maile plant (pronounced mai-lay) is one of the oldest lei materials in Hawai‘i. Besides being used to honor Laka, maile was loved by all, from Hawaiian royalty to commoners. The plant, Alyxia stellata, was believed to protect the wearer, bestow good luck, act as a natural perfume, treat cuts and calm weary ali‘i (chiefs) when placed under their pillows at night. Today in Hawai‘i maile is still revered as the lei for special occasions and ceremonies, including weddings, graduations and funerals. To give a maile lei is an act of respect and love. But it does not come cheap: Maile often runs from $30 to $120 a lei.
Why the hefty price tag? Local lei shops will sometimes raise prices when maile is difficult to acquire, and some worry that the native plant is being overharvested. Talk to the handful of expert gatherers who trek into dense, forested, hard-to-access areas, though, and they’ll tell you that maile remains abundant. The demand for the plant has also led a few enterprising farmers to cultivate the crop. But no matter where it grows, all who work with it agree: Maile is temperamental, and transforming it into lei is time-consuming.
In the wild, intrepid maile gatherers are surrounded on all sides by towering eighty-foot trees: ‘Ōhi‘a lehua, sturdy koa and eucalyptus. I am with third-generation maile picker Charleston Awai Jr., carefully navigating my way around prickly grass patches, wasp nests and pig droppings. Awai, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and old jeans, has a duffle strapped to his back, a red mesh bag around his shoulder and a pair of pruning shears in one hand. He’s moving fast.
As I follow him deeper into the woods to a spot on a mountain Awai calls the “maile capital of the world,” I keep looking up, searching for vines that might resemble the lei I know. Awai stops a hundred yards in. “Right there,” he declares. “That’s maile. Over there, and there, too. It’s all over this forest, but people who don’t have an eye for it will walk right past it.” He’s pointing down, not up, so I shift my gaze to a group of young shoots lined up on the forest floor like soldiers. “There’s all kinds of maile,” says Awai, referring to the patch in front of us as “shorties.”
The shorties are the young plants, perfect for making lei. They are part of the forest cycle: Animals eat the plant’s berries, then excrete them and a new plant grows. The “mother plants,” Awai says, are the ones you’ll see winding up the trunks of trees and into the canopy. But those vines are too old and thick to make into lei.
Awai uses his shears to snip off a section of young maile more than a foot long. He pinches the stem between two fingers and gives it a slight twist at the base, exposing the vine’s spine. Then he wraps a string around the base, and in one swift motion he strips the spine from the vine. It is discarded, and what’s left behind—“skin” and attached leaves—will be used for the lei.
Awai is cutting, pruning and stripping as we go, leaving a pile in our wake. The picking itself takes no time at all, but making the lei is another matter. “It’s a lot of long nights, tying and hanging and cleaning the lei in my garage,” he says.
Today we make our maile lei in the forest. Awai finds a log and a frond of hāpu‘u fern to hang the strands. He joins two pieces of maile together with a knot and keeps tying until his strand is six feet long. Once he has four strands of equal length, he begins to artfully weave them together. “They call it wiliwili, but basically, I just spin it,” says Awai as he holds the four strands together and begins gently spinning the lei with a flick of his wrist. He stops intermittently to pull the woven strands taut. He spins, pulls, spins, pulls.
“You don’t want it too tight or it will break, but see how by spinning it it’s getting fuller already,” he explains. “When you pull it, that locks it together and makes it strong.” All the stripping and twirling of the vine has released a chemical in the maile called coumarin, a compound also found in vanilla grass, which gives the plant its signature smell. The scent, slightly different in each variety, is what people remember most about maile. Sam ‘Ohu Gon III, senior scientist and cultural adviser for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, explains that that fragrance was extremely important to the Hawaiian people. Sweet fragrance was often connected to love. “In any mele [song], they aren’t talking about the look of the maile,” he says. “Hawaiians filled the song with images of fragrance.”
Maile grows in a wide variety of habitats from dryland to wet forests, from sea level to elevations above 6,500 feet. You can find maile on nearly all of the Hawaiian Islands, most abundantly in undeveloped areas. Maile, of which there are five varieties, has leaves that vary in size, shape and color ranging from dark to light green. You can find several varieties growing in the same area, but certain islands have become famous for just one type of maile. Gon says he heard that a long time ago there was a small-leaf maile on O‘ahu considered to be the most fragrant of all the varieties, but it was rumored to have been eradicated by goats.
“It grew only in one small valley in the Wai‘anae mountains,” Gon says. “It was said that the scent of this maile was so strong that you could be walking on the beach below and you’d nearly be knocked over by the enchanting smell.” Gon was never certain the story was true until he was contracted by the army to conduct a biological survey in the area. “We were deep in the valley in a very narrow gorge, and before we even got to it, I could smell the maile,” he recalls. “It was amazing. There weren’t many vines, but we saw a few growing on the cliff’s face where the goats couldn’t reach them.”
Hawaiian legend is rich with tales of maile, including the five maile sisters who were the epitome of beauty: maile ha‘i wale(brittle maile), maile lau li‘i (small-leaved maile), maile lau nui (large-leaved maile), maile kaluhea (sweet-scented maile) and maile pakaha (blunt-leaved maile).
While plants that are very similar to maile can be found in Australia and some Pacific islands, maile from Hawaiian populations is uniquely more fragrant. Yet, because demand for maile can exceed the Islands’ supply during the spring and summer months, some florists began bringing in leaves from the Cook Islands and Tonga more than a decade ago—at one point up to four hundred lei per week.
Donna Mah, owner of J&R Farm, saw opportunity knocking a decade ago and began growing her own maile. She now has a mist house full of a hundred plants on her farm in Waimea, on Hawai‘i Island. “I knew at some point maile supplies would get tighter as more people were going to the mountains to harvest, so I felt there was a commercial future for it,” she says.
But it wasn’t easy trying to cultivate something that was once collected only in the wild. “I tried to control it, but that was a joke. I finally learned that maile just does what it does,” says Mah.
Her older maile lau li‘i plants are too woody to make lei, so she uses them to make wreaths at Christmas. “Commercially, your investment is high, and it takes a while for the plants to grow,” she explains. “From a seed, they sprout anywhere from one week to six months.”
Colton Collins, owner of Plant Group Hawai‘i, took over his family’s thirty-acre farm and dedicated four acres of natural rainforest to growing maile lau nui. The farm is in Pana‘ewa, where Collins learned maile lei-making from his grandfather. “We only have four acres, so we really have to take care of each plant,” he says. “You have to have the right mix between sun-light and moisture. If there’s too much shade or moisture, the leaves get a fungus on them. If it’s too sunny, the leaves are too small. Maile is not that profitable when you think about the time it takes to make the lei and maintain the forest, but every time I make a lei, I think of my grandpa. Traditionally, there was so much respect given to this plant, and that still continues today.”
The dancers who opened this story were members of the hālau (troupe) of kumu hula Iwalani Kalima. Maile certainly reminds Kalima of the aloha she had for her own kumu (teacher), Uncle George Na‘ope, the man who cofounded the most famous hula competition in the world, the Merrie Monarch Festival. All around Kalima’s hālau, walls are decorated with photographs and paintings of Uncle George. In many of them he is draped with long strands of vibrant maile. The altar on which the maile lei is presented needs to be kept alive with the freshness of the forest, Kalima says, so the students of her hula hālau, O Kou Lima Nani ‘E, present lei to Laka weekly. When the lei turns brown, they return it to the land from which it came.
“We wear it often, and I adorn myself with it as well,” says Kalima. “It really connects me. Uncle George always said it was the lei of the gods.” HH