Unity in Diversity: How a Malaysian Native Became the Hawaii State Tree

A Brief History

Lawrence McCully Judd, originally the son of missionaries, was appointed the Seventh Territorial Governor of Hawaii under the administrative regime of President Herbert Hoover. He held office during the period of 1929 to 1934.

It was on March 17, 1930, while serving in this role, that he issued a proclamation to officially declare the niu or coconut palm tree as the official tree of the Territory of Hawaii.

The niu succeeded in holding on to this accolade up until April 30, 1959. On the next day, backed by Joint Resolution No. 3, the 30th Territorial Legislature of Hawaii decided to give approval for the kukui or candlenut tree to take the position of official tree for the State of Hawaii.

Also referred to as the candlenut tree, the kukui (scientific name, Aleurites moluccana) is also popular as the Belgium or Indian walnut, the varnish tree, the candleberry tree, or the candlenut oil tree.

Origin and Description of the Kukui

The candlenut tree is a native of Polynesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It has been naturalized in order to allow its cultivation in other tropical areas of the world. This also includes Hawaii, where it has become an integral part of the local culture.

Candlewood trees can be distinguished by their greyish-green or silvery hued leaves. The tree is capable of reaching up to a height of 80 feet when left to grow in the forest areas. The wood obtained from this tree is white in color, similar to what you see on holly wood. During the spring season, you have white flower growing on it in clusters, and that is followed up by brown or green fruits once the flowering season is over.

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Where can it grow?

Like any other tropical tree, candlenut trees grow best when provided with moist tropical conditions. The Hawaiian climatic conditions are optimum for the growth of this tree. Here, you can find the tree in lowland forest areas while some of them may be planted to serve the purpose of ornamental and shade trees.


In ancient Hawaiian civilization, the wood from the Kukui tree would be used for making fishnet floats and lightweight canoes. Shells of seeds obtained from this tree were put to use for costume jewelry and leis. The seeds themselves, on the other hand, could be roasted and would make for an excellent snack. Moreover, the seed could be pressed to obtain oil that could be used as drying oil and also had medicinal values.

Some interesting facts

  • Never consume the raw fruit of the candlewood tree, it is poisonous
  • The tree stands as a symbol of enlightenment, protection, and peace
  • The oil obtained from its seeds is flammable while the bark can be used as a candle
  • Soot produced from the burnt nuts are used by Hawaiians as black ink for tattoos
  • If you chew the nuts and spit them on water, it creates a lens and removes reflections. This was a strategy used by fishermen to give them better underwater visibility

The candlewood tree offers a visually pleasing presence around the island and can be put to a number of uses in Hawaiian culture. This is the primary reason why it was chosen as the State tree of Hawaii.

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