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Jaime B's Blog

Hawaii: Fragrance, Flowers, and Leis

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In a few days, my husband Russ and I are off to Hawaii for a week's vacation. I have been there twice before, and each time have learned more about Hawaii, its beauty, resources, and culture, its people and its many attractions.

We'll be spending a few days on the Big Island, Kona side, enjoying the warmth and the water, and seeing some of the island, where until now we have only spent a few hours, years ago while on a Hawaiian cruise.

Then we'll spend a few more days in Honolulu. During our time there we've arranged to see the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke's mansion "Shangri La," now part of a museum. She filled the house with stunning examples of Islamic art gathered on her many journeys through the Near and Middle East in the middle years of the last century. We're really looking forward to beholding in person what so far we've only seen in photographs.

We'll also be there for some of the Kamehameha Day festivities — at least the lei ceremony. On that day, the statue of the first king of the united Hawaiian Islands, standing proudly in front of Hawaii's Supreme Court Building and gazing out at the 'Iolani Palace where subsequent Hawaiian monarchs lived, will be decked with dozens of long, colorful leis of the kinds traditionally befitting his royal station.

And speaking of that beautiful custom of wearing leis... For me, one of the chief attractions of the Islands is that of scent. The profusion of fragrant tropical flowers and their derived scents is truly awesome. Various members of the gardenia family (Hawaiian: kiele), the scented varieties of plumeria (melia in Hawaiian), white ginger ('awapuhi ke'oke'o), anise-scented mokihana flowers, highly fragrant keni keni, pīkake (jasmine sambac), tuberose (kupaloke), carnation (ponimo'e), rose (loke lani), and fragrant maile leaves, the traditional wedding lei.

All these scented plant materials can be woven into leis that attract both the eye and the nose. Even unscented materials, like the pua kalauna (crown flower), the lau hala (leaves of the Pandanus tectorius) and the 'ohi'a lehua (the red blossoms of the tree Metrosideros polymorpha), the seeds of the hardwood koa tree (worn by warriors), feather leis (nā lei hulu of the old nobility, the ali'i) and the kukui (candlenut) lei which men often wear with evening clothes, can be strung to make leis for people to give and wear. A lei should be a gift from another, and the tradition is to give the lei by placing it over the person's neck and adding a kiss on the cheek.

My special favorite among leis is the lei pīkake, or jasmine lei. It has its own special story. The name of the jasmine flower in Hawaiian, pīkake, is derived from the English word "peacock." The flower was brought to Hawaii, according to one story, as part of a gift to a Hawaiian monarch from an Indian maharaja. The gift consisted of two things: a few peacocks, and a few sambac jasmine plants. The association of the two gifts led to the name of the birds also being applied to the flower. It is said to have been the favorite flower of Princess Ka'iulani, who after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by a cabal of U. S. businessmen, kept the dignity of Crown Princess and defended her people during the difficult years that followed.

My personal lei story is this: When Russ and I first went to Hawaii, it was on a cruise. For seven days we sailed around the Hawaiian islands, touching O'ahu, Maui, Hawai'i, and Kaua'i — we even sailed outside U. S. waters for two days to Fanning Island (Tabuaeran to its native Gilbert Islanders), watching the flying fish leap out of the water on either side of the ship as we lay on our balcony's deck chairs and leisurely plied the waters of the Pacific almost to the equator and back. It was my first Hawaiian trip, only about three years after Russ and I had met, and hence a very romantic occasion for us both. On the ship's sound system we kept hearing the hauntingly beautiful song "Lei Pīkake" by the duo Hapa. For a time, it became "our song." The song is in the Hawaiian language; it extols the fragrance and beauty of the pīkake lei, which the singer compares to his beloved.

We never found a jasmine lei on that trip. I was bummed that I had never been able to give one to Russ. The following year, Russ's mom, who had married his dad in Hawaii and lived there as newlyweds for a time, wanted to make one last nostalgic trip with her kids and their spouses back to the Islands. Russ went, but I couldn't go because it was in the middle of the semester and I had to give midterms. I missed Russ (and Hawaii) for that week that he was gone, but when he came back, he brought me two gifts that I will never forget: one was a traditional gold Hawaiian wedding ring with the inscription ku'u ipo ("my sweetheart"), which eventually became my wedding ring; the other was a fresh lei pīkake, which I proudly wore to church the following day. That lei still hangs in our apartment, its physical fragrance gone after eight years; nevertheless, the memory of its delicate and sensuous aroma still haunts me to this day.

Keep Basenotes fragrant while I'm away, my friends. I'll see you all again before too long... alas!

Updated 2nd June 2011 at 10:32 AM by JaimeB

Personal Reflections


  1. Descartes's Avatar
    Very enjoyable article,thank you! and looking forward to hear more,have a great time!
  2. JaimeB's Avatar
    The song "Lei Pīkake":

    Māpu ‘ia ke ‘ala o ka pīkake
    i ka ōaheahe a ka makani.

    [Hui:] Aloha a‘e au i ka pua ‘ume ‘ume mau.

    ‘Ako au i nēia pua aloha
    i poina ‘ole ‘ia ai a he launa ‘ole [Hui]

    ‘Ohu ‘ohu ho‘i pili i ka pu‘uwai
    he lei ho‘olei ā e pūlama. [Hui]

    Puana ‘ia mai ko‘u mana‘o
    he lei pīkake ku‘u aloha. [Hui]

    A (very) rough translation:

    The fragrance of pīkake pours forth
    by the wafting of the breeze.

    [Refrain:] I love this flower, its perpetual attraction.

    I pluck this flower of love;
    it will never be forgotten; it is unsurpassed. [Refrain]

    Adorned as with leis, it also clings to the heart,
    a lei to wear and to cherish. [Refrain]

    My thought is uttered:
    a jasmine lei is my love. [Refrain]
    Updated 2nd June 2011 at 04:48 PM by JaimeB
  3. Emlynevermore's Avatar
    That was beautiful, Jaime, from beginning to end. As always, thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences so eloquently.

    With such wonderful raw materials in abundance, I must ask, is there a natively-Hawaiian style of perfumery?
  4. easykiller's Avatar
    That was a beautifully written and romantic story that I thoroughly enjoyed. Thanks for bringing a ray of sunshine to my otherwise miserable life.
  5. teardrop's Avatar
    Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story Jaime! Hawaii is a dream destination for me, you are so lucky to have had these wonderful & romantic experiences. As a lover of tropical florals such as tiare, frangipani & pikake myself, & hoping to go there one day, is there a certain time of year that is best to experience all those fabulous fragrances?
  6. loungeboy's Avatar
    Enjoy our islands.
    They are a very special place indeed.
  7. JaimeB's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Emlynevermore
    ... With such wonderful raw materials in abundance, I must ask, is there a natively-Hawaiian style of perfumery?
    I must admit I don't know of any perfume oil extraction among the ancient Hawaiians, but then, I'm no expert. I know that the Tahitians have perfume oil in a coconut oil base. It's called monoï, and I believe it's the scent of tiaré flowers (the Tahitian national flower, a kind of gardenia) that's used to infuse the coconut oil by maceration.

    Also, in thinking of the great variety of Hawaiian fragrant plants, we have to bear in mind that many of them are not native to the Islands, but were introduced at different times by diverse groups of visitors to Hawaii.
  8. JaimeB's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by loungeboy
    Enjoy our islands.
    They are a very special place indeed.
    Mahalo, Brah! Howzit? I wen see yo profile. You stay O'ahu? I figgah bambai we gon see you inna street Waikikī side...
  9. Primrose's Avatar
    Oh, my, Jaime! Hawaii is the flower-lover's dream. I adore the pikake flower. The scenery, the flora, the beaches--very romantic. Do enjoy yourselves and share some pictures!

    I have memories of my first trip to the islands where the DH presented me with a lei of dendrobium orchids. For the record, my parents spent their honeymoon, and my father presented my mother with a lei of white flowers.

    Ah, flowers--one of the gifts of Creation!
  10. 30 Roses's Avatar
    We spent 1/3 of our honeymoon on the Big Island-- also on the Kona side.

    If I had to do it again, I would stay on the Hilo side, as we ended up spending many hours driving from the Kona side to the Hilo side for practically everything we wanted to do or see. It also rained a great deal on the Kona side.
  11. Mimi Gardenia's Avatar
    Lovely post !
  12. Primrose's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by JaimeB
    Mahalo, Brah! Howzit? I wen see yo profile. You stay O'ahu? I figgah bambai we gon see you inna street Waikikī side...
    LOL! Jaime, you are a true linguist speakin' da pidgin!
  13. loungeboy's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by JaimeB
    Mahalo, Brah! Howzit? I wen see yo profile. You stay O'ahu? I figgah bambai we gon see you inna street Waikikī side...
    I am impressed sir!
    You really have paid attention during your time here.
  14. Guest 3's Avatar
    Lovely,lovely story, and interesting history, too! I hope you and Russ have a great time. :-)
  15. RainDropSparkle's Avatar
    Aloha Jaime! We might have crossed paths last week, as my little family and I were taking a short vacation on the Big Island, as well. Your post reflects your thoughtful consideration of and respect for unique nature of the islands. Thank you for the time and great effort you put into it. I hope you are having a wonderful trip here, despite the somewhat odd weather we've been having. I also hope that you will post a followup, with a recap of your most recent experiences and newest insights.


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