Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry



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Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry

www.traditionaltree.org

April 2006

ver. 2.1

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.

IN BRIEF

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.

plants.

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.


INTRODUCTION

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.

BOTANICAL DESCRIPTION

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 

cosmetics industry.

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.

Common names

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-

atic.

DISTRIBUTION

Native range

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 

ama (Marquesas)

kukui, kuikui (Hawai‘i)

lama (Samoa)

rama (Mangareva)

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, 

waiwai (Fiji)

lumbang (Guam)

raguar (Caroline Islands)

sakan (Palau)

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 

walnut (English)

Current distribution

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 

(Spanish) 

bancoulier, noyer de bancoul, noyer des Moluques, aleurites, 

noisette, noix, noyer, noyer des Indes (French)

calumbàn, noz da India (Portuguese)

kamiri (Indonesian)

kandeltri (Bislama, Vanuatu)

Kerzennussbaum, Lichtnussbaum (German)

le noix de Bancoul (French, Vanuatu)

lèrit, nwa, nwazèt (Creole)

ragaur (Carolinian)

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.

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 

Leaves

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

fordii.

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 

seeds/lb).

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.

Seeds

Fruit

Similar species

GENETICS

Variability

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 [2]).

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.)

Fosberg 1998).

Known varieties

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 

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