Native from Polynesia west to southern Asia. It's distribution ranges from the tropics and subtropics of the Old World, West Indies, to Brazil.
Kukui thrives best in the woods of the lower mountain zone, wet gulches and valleys, ravines and hanging valleys. They are identifiable from the mountain side by their pale foliage. Thus the name "Aleurites", a Greek word that means "floury".
Kukui is a perennial tree that can grow to about 90 feet tall. The bark
on the main stem and branches are smooth and greenish-gray when the tree
is young and becomes rough as the tree becomes older.
Fruit: After fertilization, a fruit called "drupe" is formed. The fruit is round with one seed or ellipsoidal with two seeds and about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter. The outside of fruit is a hard, green covering that turns dark grayish at maturity and softens then decays when fruit falls on ground. Within this is a thin whitish, crust-like shell (parchment) that surrounds the seeds. This shell turns black and hard when seeds mature. The kernels (cotyledons) of the seeds are rich in oil which the Hawaiians used for their lamps.
The small whitish flowers of kukui is the island flower for Molokai. A superior black dye obtained from the soot produced by burning the seed, is used to dye the tapa and for tattooing. The seeds are strung into leis and the kernels are used in making the Hawaiian lamps (illumination source of early Hawaiians): lama(torch), kalikukui(candle), aulama (torch, and pohokukui (stone lamp). Eaten raw, kukui becomes a cathartic and used in enema. Its partly dried sap is used to treat thrush (ea) and its leaves are used as poultice for swellings and infections. The nuts are roasted, then ground and mixed with Hawaiian salt and limu kohu to make a relish called "inamona". The inner bark is used to dye the fishnets and the tannin in the dye strengthened nets and prevented decay. The soot from the burnt kukui nuts is also used to stain surfboards.
B. Krauss noted that after the coming of the foreigners, kukui nut oil was shipped abroad as a substitute for linseed oil, used in paints. The export was primarily for Russians to use in their settlements on NW coast of America. As much as 10,000 gallons were exported per year.
Kukui is the official tree emblem for the state of Hawaii because of "the multiplicity of its uses to the ancient Hawaiians for light, fuel, medicine, dye, and ornament as well as the distinctive beauty of its light-green foliage which embellishes many of the slopes of our beloved mountains".
Kukui is often mentioned in many Hawaiian myths, legends, and in literature. Some examples of Hawaiian proverbs about kukui: "The gum sticks to the candlenut tree" refers to a parasite or to a child clinging to his mother. "When the kukui nut is spat on the water, the sea is smooth" means the same as:"pouring oil on troubled waters"
A Tahitian mother said to her son: "The seed was sown. It budded; it blossomed. It spread out and budded again and joined line on line, Like the candlenut strung on one stem. `Tis lighted. It burns aglow and sheds its light o'er the land.