Monday | August 31, 2015
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Create an interesting lei for May Day

The political importance of May Day has a long history in the worldwide labor movement. Here in Hawaii, the politics are somewhat softened by holding Lei Day on the first of May. This hearkens back to ancient celebrations in early May, marking the beginning of the spring flowering season. Romans honored the flower goddess, Flora, at this time of year and medieval festivals crowned a flower-laden May Queen while celebrants of the “merry month” danced around maypoles bedecked with blossoms.

Looking forward to the season of flowers, folks often cheer themselves during rainy Aprils with the old English proverb “April showers bring May flowers.” Here in Hawaii, celebrating May Day as Lei Day started in 1927 at the suggestion of two journalists at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

While many of us are “all thumbs” when it comes to creating beautiful lei, we can get guidance from books or by gathering with a group to get ideas and perfect our technique. Making a beautiful lei is well within our grasp.

Several excellent books on lei making are available in local bookstores. Kona Stories in the Keauhou Shopping Center carries “Hawaiian Lei Making” by Laurie Shimizu Ide. Her book includes step-by-step instructions for making lei from more than 40 different plants that grow here. The bookstore has ordered several of Marie McDonald’s books on lei making, as well. “Ka Lei: The Leis of Hawaii,” published in 1995, is a classic. Her “Na Lei Makamaae: The Treasured Lei,” published in 2003, adds to the collection of photos and leimaking instructions. A UH-CTAHR publication, “Growing Plants for Hawaiian Lei,” is another excellent publication by McDonald that can be ordered online at This 280-page volume has more lei photos and describes ways to grow 85 different plants to use in lei making.

Check out these books for ideas. Many examples expand on the usual lei-making techniques and plants used. You’ll find new and exciting styles, colors and combinations beyond those we are accustomed to seeing and making.

If you want to join other lei makers, several options are available. Information on a free “garlands of aloha” celebration in Hilo can be found at An event in Volcano includes a hands-on lei making demonstration. For more information, 967-8222, email or visit

A lei competition is scheduled prior to a dinner and concert at the Queen Liliuokalani Keiki Hula Competition Fundraiser at the Old Kona Airport Park’s Makaeo Events Pavilion. Lei must be entered with contact information by 5:30 p.m. For more information, call Kumu Aloha at 989-4616.

The secret to making interesting and unique lei is to think outside the box. Look for plants you might not usually think of as lei plants. How about incorporating the delicate flowers of the weedy shrimp plant or twigs of Christmas berry? Ferns and leaves can be clipped and curled to add unusual accents. Move beyond the simple stringing techniques and sew your lei plants onto a strip of plant material, humupapa-style, making a head or hat lei. Vary the stringing technique to make a lei of small flowers or leaves tightly strung into a circular pattern. Use twisting or braiding techniques to combine flowers with moss or aromatic culinary herbs wili-style. Consider incorporating seeds or pods and use a variety of different material to make something truly unique.

Including fragrant flowers like tuberose, gardenias, pua keni keni, pikake, ginger, stephanotis or plumeria always make a lei special. Mix these with pentas, hydrangea, ixora, bleeding heart, baby’s breath, pansies or zinnias for a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. These unusual lei flowers can be quite attractive when used creatively.

If you want a one-day lei for the occasion, you can choose from a wider variety of plant material than you might if you want something more lasting. Many small and delicate flowers are short-lived once picked, but if you keep the lei cool and moist, it should last for a day. Choosing plant material that dries attractively can mean a long lasting lei to keep the celebration going.

Wherever or however you celebrate May Day in Hawaii, include some flowers as a way of maintaining the Lei Day tradition.

Tropical gardening helpline

Roland asks: What flower produces that strong fragrance that seems to roll down the mountain in the early evening in South Kona?

Answer: That aroma is the sweet fragrance of night blooming jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum. This plant has invaded the native forests at higher elevations and when the blossoms open at night their fragrance fills the air. Though the heavy fragrance is reminiscent of jasmine, this is not a true jasmine.

The shrub can put out branches up to 12 feet tall with long dark green leaves.

When the greenish-yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers open, they emit their strong fragrance. Pollinated flowers develop small white berries. Though these berries are toxic to humans and their mammalian pets, many birds will eat them. The birds then drop the seeds in their feces wherever they fly. The seeds germinate easily and grow rapidly into large plants, continuing the cycle of invasion.

Though the fragrance can be lovely on a warm spring night, the plant is causing severe problems in our upland forests by crowding out many threatened native plants that provide habitats for other native species.

If you have night blooming jasmine on your property, you might want to remove the plant or become vigilant on beating the birds to the berries.

Follow the advice of the Hawaii Invasive Species Council and “Don’t plant a pest.”

Email plant questions to for answers by Certified Master Gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.

Diana Duff is a local organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.