Mentioned in the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian genesis story, to being a favored flower to the fire goddess Pele, the endemic ʻōhiʻa lehua is an important tree and flower in Hawaiian culture.
Different parts of the ʻōhiʻa were used in the practice of lāʻau lapaʻau or Hawaiian healing medicine. The ʻōhiʻa apane (very dark red lehua) is used as medicine during childbirth, while the young leaves of the ʻōhiʻa are used to treat pale babies.
The lehua flowers and seeds fed the ʻapapane—the black and crimson Hawaiian honeycreeper—and now extinct mamo, a black and yellow variety of native honeycreeper that has been extinct since 1880. Native birds were prized for their feathers in the creation of ʻahuʻula (feather cloak) that were worn by high ranking aliʻi (rulers).
Pictured below is a feather cape belonging to King Kamehameha I. Presented to Admiral von Kotzebue by Queen Namahana, wife of King Kamehameha I, 1817. Currently held in the collections of the British Museum.
Traditionally, the wood of the ʻōhiʻa was used for the construction of weapons, kapa beaters, papa kuʻi ʻai (poi pounding boards), kiʻi (statues), and for housing.
Temple image figure made of 'Ōhiʻa wood, probably represents Kuka’ilimoku, the god of war. Produced prior to 1822. (1)
Of the woods used for religious figures, especially the temple images, the wood from the ʻōhiʻa tree was the most important.
This tree was believed to be one manifestation of the major gods, Kane and Ku, and was therefore thought to have great mana (power). (2)
The wood is easily carved with a sharp tool when it is freshly cut or if it is kept wet. It is a very dense wood. A log will sink when placed in water, and this means was used to store and season the material. (2)
A possible cause of the sacredness attributed to the ʻōhiʻa lehua...may have been the redness of the wood, which when freshly cut has an appearance strickingly like that of raw meat, thus reinforcing the idea of life and possibly correlating with human sacrifice, which in special cases preceded the carving of an image. (2)
Lehua flowers and liko (young leaf buds) were used for lei and altar adornments.
To evoke or inspire the Gods and enhance their storytelling, hula dancers traditionally wear lehua blossoms or buds in lei, headbands, around wrists and ankles. (3)
ʻŌhiʻa branches are used to create traditional kālaʻau, or dancing sticks, and branches bearing both woody parts and flowers to symbolize the male and female elements adorn kuahu (altars) when hula students are in training. (4)