Kinolau Hula

The practice of hula is unique to Hawai`i. The dance has beginnings when the gods dwelled amongst the land: the pantheons of spirits roamed the earth and giant lizards could turn themselves into handsome men or huge stones. Pele and Hi'iaka is our initial glimpse of hula at Haena on the island of Hawai`i. The dance was born when Hiiaka mimicked the movement of the sea and wind. Our most traditional dances began depicting movement and character of nature, illustrating the flowers and trees of the forest. 

Through the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian Creation Chant, and Pele and Hi`iaka, the literal account of protocol and ritual, we learn the hierarchy of the plants in Hawai`i and the role each one plays in our universe. Those writings, centuries old, are still relevant today as the seasons come and go, the moon cycles through its phases, and the tides continue to rise and fall. 

The forest is an important part of hula. The ferns, trees, vines, leaves, and flowers are the embodiments of hula. As we gather each frond and leaf, we are taking the bodies of our deities. We honor and respect the greenery as we weave our lei and decorate our bodies. When we dance, we become the trees. We are the flowers. We are the `ōlapa. 

The cycle of the forest is important to our lives! Attracting the clouds out at sea, the rains fall when the warmth of the land meets the clouds. The `ōhi`a trees and the plants of the forest drink in the rain, mists and the moisture. As the water falls through the plants and onto the land, the streams and rivers flow. Flowing from the uplands, the cycle of the water continues... flowing out to sea and then rising again as a cloud. 

It is this respect to the universe in which we live that we honor through chant and dance. We speak of the rank of the various trees and ferns because we acknowledge their role in the balance of nature. Specifically for the practices with our hula, we direct protocol and ritual to the importance of these few as they are the representations of the deities. 

Ola na akua o ka nahelehele!

Kinolau Hula Plant Hierarchy List & Descriptions
Latin Name: Freycinetia arborea


Indigenous to Hawai`i, the woody vine often grows alongside the `ōhi`a trees. Found at lower levels, sometimes at sea level, it likes damp and wet climates. The vines shape the trunk and branches of the `ohi`a as it climbs to the top, creating curly, twisting trunks. Growing in the lofty canopies and blooming iridescently, it is considered a symbol of royalty.
The aerial roots make hīnaʻi hoʻomoe iʻa (fish baskets), hīnaʻi hoʻoluʻuluʻu (fish traps), and mahiole iʻe
(aliʻi helmets). A clipping of vines, leaves or flowers are placed on the kuahu hula (hula altar).
In ceremony, the `ie`ie is the first of all plants set on the kuahu,
representing the highest rank within the forest.
Scientific Name: Metrosideros polymorpha
The ‘ōhi’a is an endemic plant found on all of the main islands except Ni’ihau and Kaho’olawe. `Ōhi`a
are found mainly at higher elevations, while occasionally growing along the coast and in lowland dry
forests. They can be found from sea level all the way up to around 6,000 feet.
One of the first trees to colonize new lava flows, they are very important to our water systems.
Flowers, leaves, and bark gather mist and rain, delivering it to our aquifers. `Ōhi`a, to gather, is the
main function of this tree.
The new sprouts, liko, are chosen for lei for hula kahiko. Budding in many different colors -
orange, plum, charcoal, chartreuse - is the metaphor of the perspective for hula. Sprouting, budding,
blossoming persona of the forest, the dancer becomes the tree in the uplands. Liko is the symbol of
children or a new beginning.
`Ōhi`a is the second highest of the kinolau hula. Lei are made of the youngest leaf buds and
blossoms. “Ulu ka `ōhi`a, a lau ka wai... The `ohi`a grows, a leaf holding water...”
Scientific Name: Microlepia strigosa


Palapalai is an indigenous fern native to Hawai`i. Found on all the main islands in both damp and
dry forests, they grow near sea level and upwards to about 5,000 foot elevation.
Fronds are very soft and are usually light to medium green in color. Medium sized ferns grow to be about 2-3 feet tall. Individual blades and midrib are usually very hairy.
Palapalai rank highly within the forest as it functions as keeper of the moisture and dampness in the understory. This bank of water insures that the roots of the trees in the canopy are constantly nourished.
A very important plant in hula, it is kinolau to Laka, the goddess of hula. Its placement on the kuahu (hula altar), as third highest, is most often offered in lei form. The lei is an important embodiment as dancers will often be decorated with palapalai for hula kahiko.
Scientific Name: Sphenomeris chinensis
Lacy light green, pala`ā is found in many environments throughout the islands.
Around the forests of Kilauea Volcano, the fern grows in the shade of the `ōhi`a alongside of the `ōhelo berry and the `lei. Amongst the grasses of the pasturelands or hanging from the pali where the winds blow strong, the fern is found dancing at the lower elevations. Deep within the rainforest, youʻll find it with long fronds.
Pala`ā is one of the plants that begin to green the lava flows. The fern is one of the requirements in Hi`iakaʻs work as a healer, as her pā`ū of pala`a ferns was necessary to have in the revival of Lohiauʻs life. The pala`ā is mentioned often in the saga of Pele and Hi`iaka. In the battle at Pana`ewa, the pa`u helped Hiiaka traverse the forest of the great mo`o and destroy him.
Itʻs rank on the kuahu hula is fourth. Lei pala`ā is the symbol of revivification. Placement on the
kuahu represents a renewal of honor and acknowledgement.
Scientific Name: Acacia Koa
The koa lives at 1,000 feet to the 7,500 foot level, growing sometimes over a hundred feet tall. It
is one of the tallest native trees in the forest, sought especially for its trunk in building canoes. It is
endemic to Hawai`i, growing on the five main islands.
The sickle shaped phyllodes attracts the moisture and drips down to the understory. This management of water from tree tops down to its roots is its function in the greater forest. Itʻs protective canopy is a symbiotic relationship with its forest community.
Placed on the kuahu, the koa incites inner strength. It symbolizes the fearlessness to dance. A lei of
koa leaves, a branch of flowers, or its tree trunk are placed on the kuahu hula. Ranked as number
five of the kinolau hula.
Scientific Name: Cheirodendron trigynum


Living amongst `ōhi`a and koa, the `ōlapa tree thrives in the damp, wet forest. Itʻs light green leaves,
dancing in the slightest breeze, has a unique smell. Names and species vary slightly from island to
island, `ōlapa on some, lapalapa on others. Endemic to Hawai`i, the trees are found on all islands
except for Kaho`olawe.
The leaves are opposite on the branches, dividing into three to five small leaflets. Shapes vary from
oval or oblong, some wider than other species. Flowers are numerous on leaf axils. Fruits form after
the flowers bloom. The leaflets, knotted together, make the lei hīpu`u.
On the kuahu hula, the olapa is the sixth kinolau. Lei `ōlapa represents the greater forest and the
movements of the dancer.



Scientific Name: Alyxia stellata
Endemic to Hawai`i, maile is found at sea level forests upwards to the 4,500 feet altitudes. Lower
forests nurture the bushes, pushing out vines that climb to the top of the canopy. While they proliferate in the damp and wet forests, the plant survives in the medium dry forests with fern understory.
Fragrant and a very popular lei, maile grows in various shapes and sizes, from very tiny narrow
leaves to large dark oval. There are two-leaf, three, and sometimes four-leaf maile, specific to the
area of growth. 
Maile is ranked seven on the kuahu hula. Lei are symbolic of the bonding of knowledge and the
relationship with the greater forests.
Scientific Name: Aleurites mollucana
The kukui is one of our canoe plants, brought to Hawai`i by earlier settlers. Its distinct leaf shape and
light green color distinguishes this tree from a distance.
Growing at sea level upwards to 1,000 feet, the tree is most useful. Itʻs English name, Candlenut
Tree, describes its use: seeds strung on a coconut midrib is a candle. The nuts makes `inamona,
relish in many recipes. Resin and sap are important medicines. Dyes are obtained through seed,
root, and bark.
Lei of leaves and flowers are placed on the kuahu hula. Enlightenment significance of the kukui as
the word means light. Its rank is eighth of the kinolau.
Scientific Name: Phymatosorus grossus
Famous for its fragrance, the laua`e fern is included in many kinds of lei. Famous is the grove at
Makana, Kauai, noted in song and chant. 
Growing profusely in shaded moist areas, the dark green fern makes up the understory at lower
elevations, even growing near the ocean. Fronds rise up from runners, spreading quickly.
The fragrant leaves are often used to scent kapa. Placed within the folds, the aroma adds to the
essence of the kapa. The ranking of the laua`e is number nine, establishing the hierarchy of plants
in the halau hula.
Lei laua`e is symbolic of the gathering together of Kumu and haumana.