Nothing says Aloha like giving or receiving a beautiful lei whether you are a visitor to the islands or kamaaina. It’s a celebratory tradition in Hawaii symbolizing the gifting of some of your ‘mana’ (spirit) to another. The lei can be a simple string of single flowers or can be intricate and fragrant.
Technically, the word ‘lei’ refers to any decorative items strung together into a necklace. However, from the 19th century to the present day, floral lei are more commonly seen. Hawaiian tropical flowers can be especially beautiful, created in an intoxicating array of colors. A similar tradition of floral garlands exists throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly at weddings, but Hawaiian lei are probably the most iconic.
Made from a wide variety of fragrant and non-fragrant flowers like plumerias, carnations, orchids, and pikake, and sometimes incorporating non-flowering plants, bark and even feathers, these lovely creations are often assumed to be short-lived and disposable. However, if cared for properly, a freshly created lei can last for several days.
If you are ordering them in advance for a luau, graduation, wedding, birthday, or other celebration, it’s important to follow the following tips for keeping them fresh and pristine.
When you receive your lei, spray them lightly all over with a plant mister (unless they are predominantly made from pikake — see below). They should not be dripping wet when this process is complete.
If the cut stems are accessible, you can keep them fresh by dipping the stems in water containing a couple of drops of bleach to prevent bacterial damage. If the design of your lei does not easily permit this, then store them carefully as below.
Carefully place the lei on a layer of paper towels and slide them into a large, aerated bag, which should be left open at one side.
Pikake blossoms need to be kept cool but dry to preserve their fragrance. Create an envelope with wax paper and insert the lei with a small quantity of baking soda. The soda will absorb any excess condensation which forms. Almost completely seal the envelope, leaving just a small opening and place in an airtight container in the coldest part of your fridge.
Store moistened blossoms in a cool but not cold location. A large vegetable bin in a refrigerator with the temperature dialed to its minimal setting would work well. 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.
If you have lei of different varieties requiring different temperatures, you may have to keep them separately for best effect.
Wherever you store them, make sure they are positioned away from direct sunlight or breezes. Lei will begin to turn brown in the wrong environment.
One lei that should never be refrigerated is the puakenikeni to be kept at room temperature or risk browning the flower petals. Sandwich between two damp paper towels and lay flat in a plastic bag or container.
If you look after them well, even three or four days after you receive your lei, they can look as fresh as the day they were created.