Big Island

Plants of Merrie Monarch Festival (Part 2): Gathering Protocol

Before they step on stage, hula dancers make all their own flower lei following certain strict protocol when gathering flowers. Whether performing at a luau or the Merrie Monarch hula competition, before they step on stage hula dancers must make all their own flower lei. The dancers and their kumu hula (hula teacher) follow certain strict protocol when gathering flowers.

Adornments – hula plants worn by the dancers – include maile, ‘ilima, lehua, palapalai, and ‘a‘ali‘i, among others. In my last blog, I mentioned that the flowers used by the dancers are specifically selected because they represent the people or places mentioned in the hula being performed. For instance, if the dance is about the volcano goddess Pele, the the dancers will wear red lehua flowers.


Depending on the types of flowers and plants to be used in a performance, hula dancers will typically pick the flowers several days in advance of a performance. Some material like the liko (flower buds on the lehua tree) can be picked a week in advance, while ferns are picked a couple days in advance. Under the guidance of their kumu hula, the dancers follow a specific sequence of events. The kumu hula is the one responsible for creating the design of their costumes and what lei the dancers will wear.

Where Do They Pick the Flowers & Plants?

The kumu hula is also in charge of knowing where to go pick flowers and plants used for the lei the dancers will wear. Every hula halau (group) has their own special spots for collecting plants. But don’t expect them to tell you where they picked their flowers – their gathering places are usually a secret! First and foremost is to always ask permission before entering a forest to gather plants. Depending on the situation, either the kumu hula or the entire halau will perform a protective oli (chant).


Photo Courtesy of Hawaii Visitors Bureau

Hula halau, and hula dancers in general, do not gather plant material needlessly. The specific hula they will perform dictates what flowers and plants will be worn, so the dancers only pick those flowers needed for the specific dance. Gathering the plant material isn’t a social party time. When in the forest, the hula dancers and their kumu hula consider themselves to be in the realm of the gods and other beings. Dancers are respectful of their surroundings, picking flowers and plants quietly and then leaving.

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‘Ohana Sanctuary – Native Cloud Koa Forest

Some hula dancers have started to grow their own plants at home. They’ll grow their own gardens at their home, or someplace they can tend to them, because some plants are getting harder and harder to find. Hawaii Island halau performing in Merrie Monarch have an advantage in that they can pick all their materials on island. Competing halau from other islands will usually pick their flowers and make their lei shortly before arriving in Hilo.

On islands like Oahu, which is the most populated of all the Hawaiian Islands and also home to the most hula halau, it is becoming harder for some halau to find certain flowers. They, and other competing halau from the mainland or other countries, must either order their plant material from a Hawaiian florist or nursery, or hire a halau here on Hawaii Island to make their lei for them.

When the hula performance is finished, the plant materials are returned back to nature either to the dancer’s garden or to the forest.

Merry Monarch 2015 is here!

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