Add Aleurites moluccanus to the list of plants featured on Botany Photo of the Day that have an uncertain native distribution. Speculated to be native to somewhere in Malesia, candlenut or kukui (Hawai’i) is now distributed throughout tropical areas of Earth due to uses such as: food, ink, light source, varnish, lumber, soap, shampoo, ritual oils, cosmetic oils, and a visual aid when fishing!
Rarely nearing 30m (100 ft.) tall, Aleurites moluccanus is more often a medium-sized tree in the 10-15m (30-50 ft.) range (see additional images of the species here: Aleurites moluccanus). Within the fifty states of the USA, it has the distinction of being the only non-native state tree (Hawai’i).
The first link in the entry (to the Wikipedia page) outlines the species’ many uses. I’ll quote a few from Hawai’i, though please visit the link to see how other peoples use or have made use of the species:
A Hawaiian condiment known as ʻinamona is made from roasted kukui (candlenuts) mixed into a paste with salt. ʻInamona is a key ingredient in traditional Hawaiian poke.
[Hawaiian] fishermen would chew the nuts and spit them on the water to break the surface tension and remove reflections, giving them greater underwater visibility.
This ability to break the surface tension of the water (as well as being a soap or shampoo) is due to the presence of saponins, a class of chemical compounds common to many plant species used as soaps.
Its importance to Hawaiians also led to it being integrated into Hawaiian proverbs and poetry (all quotes courtesy of Mary Kawena Pukui’s ʻŌlelo Noʻeau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings). For example, the white masses of flowers covering the tree led to the saying,
A’ea’e mōhala i luna o ke kukui
This was “used in reference to a person who grays”.
Ua lilo i ke koli kukui a maluhi
Which means, “gone lamp-trimming until tired” (i.e., one who has gone on an all-night spree). This proverb can be understood by learning the reason for the English common name, again via Wikipedia (or a Missouri Botanical Garden factsheet: Aleurites moluccanus):
In ancient Hawai’i, kukui nuts were burned to provide light. The nuts were strung in a row on a palm leaf midrib, lit on one end, and burned one by one every 15 minutes or so. This led to their use as a measure of time.