Afterthoughts: Making Lei

Forget store-bought—the best gifts are the ones you make.
Photo: Michael Keany


This past may, my sister Mary graduated from UH Mānoa with a degree in mechanical engineering. I’m so proud of her, and while it might have been the end of her schooling, the landmark turned out to be a learning experience for me, in a way I didn’t expect.


If someone’s graduating in Hawai‘i, you’re gonna need lei. Lots of lei. Enough lei that the stack threatens to block the graduate’s vision and ability to breathe. This is no time for subtlety
or understatement.


My solution was to head to Don Quijote. The discount store stocks a full range of lei: super-cheap, fake-flower, touristy numbers; mesh lei stuffed with snacks and treats; those ruffly fabric lei that are so soft to the touch. I stocked up. The resulting pile of brightly colored plastic, kukui nuts and li hing mui was suitably impressive. A quick stop by a florist the day before the ceremony for a couple of real flower lei, I figured, and I’d be set.


My sister Catherine flew in from Maui the Thursday before graduation with a different strategy: a lei needle. (I’m a little perturbed it’s still possible to board a plane with a two-foot-long piece of metal designed for piercing things, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) “So where are the good plumeria trees?” she asked. “I gotta make lei.”


I had no idea where to find plumeria, let alone good ones. People have mental maps of the city in their heads, for all kinds of very specific things. No matter where I am in town, I could tell you where the nearest pho restaurant is, or the nearest gas station. “Flowers of Honolulu,” on the other hand, is not a map my brain possesses.


Fortunately, Facebook exists. I put out the call: Who’s got the plumeria hookup? Within minutes, we had leads. (In case anyone’s wondering, you can find plumeria at the corner of Wilder and Metcalf, a certain elementary school campus near UH Mānoa, and my friend Merliza’s house.)


Catherine spent a couple of hours collecting flowers, and then stringing them into lei. It was a good start, but she wasn’t done yet.


On Friday night, we went over to a friend’s get-together over by Punchbowl. My sister’s eyes lit up when she saw the huge fountain of bougainvillea growing in front of the house. “These would be perfect for a lei!” At the end of the evening, after checking with the host, of course, we pruned the tree of a few of its heaviest sprays of purple blossoms on our way to the car.


Excited by her good fortune, and at this point in full-on flower-hunter mode, Catherine scoped out another stand of bougainvillea about a block away from my apartment—part of one of those overgrown messes that shield hoarder houses from judging eyes. 


A midnight mission to poach the landscaping of a hoarder? What could go wrong? She grabbed a couple of plastic grocery bags and a pair of scissors from my kitchen drawer and headed down the street on foot. “I’ll be right back!” Oh, god.


Thankfully, she managed to evade detection and returned safe and sound with bulging bags, the foliage looking better for the stealthy trim. We sat up for another hour or two in my living room, talking story while she assembled a pair of lei from the pile of bougainvillea blossoms. The final result was amazing: huge, puffy, purple, clearly a labor of love.


Comparing them to my own Don Quijote pile of candy and plastic, I suddenly wished I did possess a map of flowers, and a lei needle at the ready, for special occasions like this. In a place where flowers are abundant and beautiful, homemade lei are such an easy way to create a heartfelt gift—why did I always automatically default to a store-bought solution? I resolved to take a page from Catherine’s book, going forward, to consider gift-giving more thoughtfully.


In the end, of course, the combination of my lei and Catherine’s lei and everyone else’s lei turned out to make a perfect stack around Mary’s neck. Some occasions are so happy that the details end up not mattering much. Still, I’ve started to notice plumeria trees around town, making a mental note each time. Come the next birthday, anniversary or graduation, I’ll be ready!