Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry
Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry
Aleurites moluccana (kukui)
Euphorbiaceae (spurge family)
‘ama (Marquesas); candlenut, candleberry, varnish tree, Indian or Belgaum walnut (English); kukui, kuikui (Hawai‘i);
lama (Samoa); lauci, nggerenggere, sikeci, sikeli, sikethi, toto, tuitui, tutui, waiwai (Fiji); lumbang (Guam); raguar (Car-
oline Islands); rama (Mangareva); sakan (Palau); sakan, shakan (Pohnpei); tahii, tahiri, tiairi, ti‘a‘iri, tutui (Moorea
[French Polynesia]); tuitui (Mangaia [Cook Islands], Futuna, Makatea, Niue, Tonga, Tubuai, Uvea); tutu‘i, ti‘a‘iri
(Society Islands); tutui (Rimatara, Rurutu, Tahiti)
Craig R. Elevitch and Harley I. Manner
photo: C. ElEvitCh
A gathering place under kukui.
Distribution Widespread throughout the tropics.
Growth rate Moderately fast growing in favorable condi-
Size Typically reaches 10–15 m (33–50 ft), with similar tions, growing 0.5–1.5 m (1.6–5 ft) per year.
crown diameter.Main agroforestry uses Windbreak, screen/hedge, soil
Habitat Subtropical dry to wet and tropical very dry to stabilization, homegardens.
wet forest climates. Typically 0–700 m (0–2300 ft) with Main products Oil from seed, nut shells for leis.
rainfall of 640–4290 mm (25–170 in).
Yields 80 kg (176 lb) seeds per tree/year in cultivation.
Vegetation Associated with a wide variety of cultivated Intercropping Planted as a boundary or windbreak tree.
Invasive potential Moderate, has naturalized in many ar-
Soils Prefers light and medium textured soils; grows even on eas. Rarely considered a pest.
basalt, red loams, stony clay ground, sand, and limestone.
Kukui is one of the great domesticated multipurpose trees
of the world. It is one of the most useful trees introduced by
the aboriginal people of the Pacific islands. A tall, spread-
ing tree in open areas, it commonly attains heights of 10 m
(33 ft) and a canopy diameter about as wide as the tree
is tall. Kukui grows in homegardens, in and around farms,
and naturalized along streams, gulches, and valley slopes. It
is easily recognized by its characteristic silvery gray-green
foliage, which is particularly ornamental.
Kukui is native to the Indo-Malaysia region and was in-
troduced in ancient times throughout the Pacific islands. It
can grow in a wide range of dry to wet tropical and sub-
tropical habitats but is most at home in the moist tropics
with annual rainfall of 2000 mm (80 in) or greater. Kukui
tolerates drought and wind and grows readily on poor soils
as well as steep slopes. Due to its many traditional uses and
its role in ecosystems, kukui is recognized as the official
state tree of Hawai‘i.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, it is primarily found in cultivation
in villages and plantations or in secondary growth follow-
ing cultivation or along stream banks. The tree is also found
in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Malagasy, Sri Lanka,
southern India, Bangladesh, Brazil, the West Indies, and
the Gulf Coast of the United States.
m (2300 ft). In Hawai‘i, kukui has naturalized in forests
on all the main islands and is commonly found in cultiva-
tion. It is particularly at home in moderately moist valleys,
where it has become a conspicuous part of the landscape.
Aleurites moluccana (L.) Willd.
Preferred scientific name
Family Euphorbiaceae (spurge family)
The traditional uses of kukui are extensive. Throughout
Polynesia kukui is known in local languages by names
whose root means “light,” referring to the traditional use
of seeds and oil which were burned for illumination. Many
parts of the plant including the seeds, leaves, flowers, and
bark were used in traditional medicine. Caution is advised
in using the plant medicinally or for consumption, as all
parts of the tree are toxic. Dyes extracted from various
plant parts were used to color tapa cloth and canoes, as
well as in tattooing. Today, in addition to its traditional
uses, kukui has found commercial uses, particularly in the
Non-preferred scientific names
Synonyms no longer in use include:
Aleurites javanica Gand.
Aleurites remyi Sherff
Aleurites triloba Forster & Forster f.
Camirium moluccanum (L.) Ktze.
Croton moluccanus L.
Jatropha moluccana L.
In urban areas, kukui makes a lovely shade tree or visual
screen. In agricultural systems it can be integrated for use
in windbreaks, shade, soil stabilization, and improved fal-
low. Kukui can regenerate and naturalize where planted,
and it has been described as a moderate invader in certain
areas. However, it is rarely considered invasive or problem-
Kukui is native to Indo-Malaysia. It thrives in moist tropi-
cal regions up to 1200 m (3940 ft) elevation.
Kukui is today widespread throughout the tropics. It was
introduced aboriginally throughout the Pacific islands and
is now a common tree of the Pacific at elevations up to 700
kukui, kuikui (Hawai‘i)
tahii, tahiri, tiairi, ti‘a‘iri, tutui (Moorea, French Polynesia)
tuitui (Mangaia [Cook Islands], Futuna, Makatea, Niue,
Tonga, Tubuai, Uvea)
tutu‘i, ti‘a‘iri (Society Islands)
tutui (Rimatara, Rurutu, Tahiti)
Other common names from the Pacific include:
lauci, nggerenggere, sikeci, sikeli, sikethi, toto, tuitui, tutui,
raguar (Caroline Islands)
sakan, shakan (Pohnpei)
The roots of the Polynesian names below mean “light,” re-
ferring to the ancient use of burning the nuts or oil ex-
tracted from the nuts to provide illumination:
Candlenut, candleberry, varnish tree, Indian or Belgaum
Names from other world regions include:
Aleurites moluccana (kukui)
Left: Kukui often is found in the regrowth of abandoned agricultural sites, such as here in American Samoa. (pictured: Tui-
puavai Tago) Right: The distinctive canopy often stands out in the landscape, such as here on the slopes of Waipi‘o Valley,
Hawai‘i. photos: C. ElEvitCh
arbol llorón, avellano, avellano criollo, nogal de la India, nuez
bancoulier, noyer de bancoul, noyer des Moluques, aleurites,
noisette, noix, noyer, noyer des Indes (French)
calumbàn, noz da India (Portuguese)
kandeltri (Bislama, Vanuatu)
Kerzennussbaum, Lichtnussbaum (German)
le noix de Bancoul (French, Vanuatu)
lèrit, nwa, nwazèt (Creole)
tung (trade name)
Kukui is a large spreading tree that can reach 20 m (66 ft)
in height and 0.9 m (3 ft) trunk diameter, although it typi-
cally reaches 10–15 m (33–50 ft) when growing in the open.
Crooked trunks and irregular, wide, spreading or pendu-
lous side branches are typical. In narrow valleys kukui usu-
ally has a branchless trunk and achieves its greatest height.
Dense clusters of kukui are often seen in areas favorable
to its growth, with the inner trees having tall trunks with
relatively few side branches and trees on the edge having
outer side branches and foliage often down to the ground.
Kukui is monoecious (having both male and female flow-
ers on the same plant). The greenish-white, fragrant flow-
ers are arranged in a 10–15 cm (4–6 in) terminal panicled
cyme, with many small male flowers surrounding the fe-
male flowers. The corolla is whitish with five free petals,
dingy white to creamy in color, oblong in shape and up to
1.3 cm (0.5 in) in length. The ovary is pubescent, superior,
and two-celled, each with one ovule. Staminate flowers are
longer and thinner than pistillate flowers.
Size and form
The plant typically flowers in the spring, although flowers
can be found nearly any time of year in many areas.
This tree is easily discernible by its very distinctive leaves,
which are three- to five-nerved from the base, alternate, and
simple, with entire, wavy margins. The leaf blades are 10–20
cm (4–8 in) long with two glands at the junction of the
Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry (www.traditionaltree.org)
Upper left: The scientific name for kukui, Aleurites, comes from the Greek word for “floury,” referring to the dusted-flour ap-
pearance of young leaves and flower buds. Upper right: Trees often flower nearly continuously. Lower right: Ripe fruit in tree.
Lower left: Bark is smooth and light gray in color, often with lichen growth in moist areas. photos: C. ElEvitCh
leaf base and petiole that secrete a sweetish sap. Leaves of
young plants and those of the lower branches are three- to
five-lobed with a rounded, heart-shaped base (subcordate),
while the apex is acute (sharp). Younger leaves are usually
simple and deltoid to ovate in shape. The upper surface of
young leaves is whitish with a silvery gloss, becoming dark
green with age. The underside is rusty stellate-pubescent
when young (having a hairy glossy indument).
The green to brownish fruit is a laterally compressed, ovoid
to globose indehiscent drupe 5–6 cm (2–2.4 in) long by
5–7 cm (2–2.8 in) wide. It has also been described as being
“round, hard apple-shaped” with fleshy to leathery husks.
The nuts contain an oil similar to tung oil from Aleurites
The seeds are contained within a hard, black, rough shell
elliptical in shape and about 2.5–3.5 (1–1.4 in) cm long. The
shells are similar in shape and texture to walnuts, although
smaller and thicker. There are about 100–120 seeds (with
shells on, but with husks removed) per kilogram (45–55
Aleurites trisperma Blanco is a small tree similar to kukui (A.
moluccana). Unlike kukui, A. trisperma has unlobed leaves
and prominently ridged three-seeded fruits.
There is great variability in kukui, particularly in the leaves,
Aleurites moluccana (kukui)
which can vary tremendously in size, shape, color, and tex-
ture, even on a single tree. For example, leaves of young
plants and of the lower branches are three- to five-lobed
while older leaves and those of the upper branches are usu-
ally simple and deltoid to ovate in shape. Fruits can range
in size up to 4 cm (1.6 in) in diameter.
The variety aulanii is named for small-fruited plants from
Waipi‘o Valley, Hawai‘i (Wagner et al. 1999). The variety
katoi (mango-leafed kukui) has “narrow, lanceolate leaves
with lateral lobes obscure or absent” (Stuppy et al. undated).
The remyi variety, also the probable result of aboriginal Ha-
waiian selection, has “lengthened, simple lanceolate leaves
(with or without obscure lobes) or deeply lobed leaves with
the lateral lobes very narrow and the terminal lobe much
elongated,” while a cultivar from New Caledonia has or-
bicular leaves (Stuppy et al. undated). A variety found in
Vanuatu (Maewo) has seeds which can be eaten without
any apparent toxic effect (Walter and Sam 2002).
In China, tung oil is produced from Aleurites fordii (Stone
1970). In Japan, A. cordata is used for the same purpose,
while other related species are A. montana and A. trisperma
(Anon. undated ).
Hawaiian sayings (Pukui 1983)
He kumu kukui i he‘e ka pīlali.
“A kukui tree oozing with gum.”
(A prosperous person.)
Ka malu hālau loa o ke kukui.
“The long shelter of the kukui trees.”
(A kukui grove shelters like a house.)
Pupuhi kukui—malino ke kai.
“Spewed kukui nuts—calm sea.”
(Pour oil on troubled waters.)
Culturally important related species
On Moorea (Fr. Polynesia), kukui, Hibiscus tiliaceus, Rhus
taitensis, and other trees are found on the sides of val-
leys. On rocky slopes, kukui is found in association with