31 Days of Life in my Hawaii Day 25:: Flowers in my yard: Lehua

yellow lehua blossoms

I am no gardener — I challenge anyone to beat me at brown thumb-ness — but I know what I like in a garden.

So when we moved into our current home a dozen or so years ago, I told The Coach that I really wanted to have native Hawaiian plants incorporated into our landscaping.

The centerpiece of which are our ohi`a lehua trees. The ohi`a tree is native to Hawaii, thriving in the upland forests on all islands. The nomenclature is a bit tricky, in that the tree is known as ohi`a, and the blossom is called lehua. Never vice versa. More on that in a little bit.

Our ohi`a lehua tree

One of our trees bears red lehua (lehua ‘ula) and the other bears yellow lehua (lehua mamo) blossoms. Trees with the red blossoms are generally more common, but for some reason our tree with yellow seems to do better.

Both the blossoms and the silvery leaf buds, know as liko, are used in lei making, particularly leis for hula. Every year at the Merrie Monarch Festival, several halau seem to choose leis of lehua –red or yellow or both — for their performances.

lei of red lehua. photo credit: ainahuaflorals.com

And, as is true of many elements of Hawaiian life, there are legends associated with this tree and its blossom. Here’s one, a love story (which many Hawaiian legends are):

In ancient times, there was a handsome chief named Ohi`a. He was deeply in love with a beautiful young maiden named Lehua. Ohi`a had eyes for no one else, and wooed Lehua and promised to be true to her always.

The two might have lived happily ever after, except that one day Pele, the goddess of fire, came upon Ohi`a and was absolutely smitten with him. Taking the form of a beautiful woman, Pele set out to seduce him. But Ohi`a was steadfast in his love for Lehua and refused Pele’s advances. Enraged, Pele decided that if she couldn’t have Ohi`a for herself, no one would. So she transformed him into a gnarly, twisted tree with gray leaves.

When Lehua saw what had happened to her lover, she cried out in anguish. The other gods heard her and took pity. They couldn’t undo what Pele had done, but they could turn Lehua into a bright red blossom on the tree, so that the lovers could never again be separated.

To this day, when you pluck a lehua blossom, it will rain — a sign of the tears the lovers shed at being separated from each other.

This is the twenty-fifth post in my series, 31 Days of Life in my Hawaii. Click here to get the links to the other posts in the series.

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