Presenting a lei to a graduating student is a tradition that has spread from Hawai‘i to the West Coast and beyond. In Hawai‘i, lei are made with fragrant flowers, ti or spicy maile leaves, shells, seeds and nuts, feathers, dollar bills, or candy. And they might be piled around a student’s neck up to his or her chin, depending on how many relatives attend their commencement. The graduation lei on the mainland are typically made of purple Dendrobium orchids shipped here in plastic boxes.
Making your own lei is easy and inexpensive and reduces your carbon footprint. Plus, adorning your loved one with flowers or foliage that represent your neighborhood or home garden can be much more meaningful than giving a prepackaged gift.
Of the many ways to make a lei, the easiest two are the stringing or piercing method (kui) and the knotting method (kipu’u).
For the stringing method, use a long thread and a needle to pierce whatever flowers or material you use through their center or side. To start, tie a knot around the end piece, leaving a length of thread to tie the two ends of the lei together when it has reached the desired size. The longer the needle, the easier it is to string flowers with a tubular shape, such as plumeria. Bougainvillea, stephanotis, ginger, carnation, and gardenia also work well. Cécile Brünner rosebuds, agapanthus blossoms, Carolina jessamine, and kangaroo paw are all great options in bloom now.
For the knotting method, use short pieces of hemp or cotton twine to tie the stems of leaves or flowers to a length of twine longer than your lei will be. Tie the knots on what will be the back side of the lei, and be sure to tie them tightly so that if the material shrinks as it dries it does not drop out. Tie in the next stem or bunch of material, hiding your last knot and tying in any loose stems protruding from it. Cut off the excess string.
A lei made primarily of leaves is usually worn open-ended around the neck “maile style,” with each side hanging down below the waist. Good leaf materials include geranium, ivy, eucalyptus, pineapple guava, dusty miller, Grecian laurel, California bay, many kinds of sage, and sprigs of rosemary or lavender. A few flowers or small succulent rosettes make nice color accents.
Whatever material you choose, test it by leaving a few samples out on a table for a day or two to see how it holds up. Soak leaves in water for 10 minutes to remove dust and plump them up, and then dry them in a salad spinner or on a towel. Mature leaves have less tendency to wilt. If you make lei the day before your event, spray each one lightly with water, place in a plastic bag, inflate the bag, and close with a twist tie. Keep them in the refrigerator. Don’t moisten lei if you make them the morning of the event.
While fragrant maile leaves are traditional in the islands, here scented geranium, lemon gum eucalyptus, bay, or sprigs of rosemary or lavender are fragrant reminders to your graduate that home is California.