The Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida is home to what is thought to be the only tree of its kind in mainland North America.

LOCATED to the rear of the Great Ceremonial House in the Disney Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World Florida, is what is believed to be the only tree of its kind in mainland North America. Growing tall and in an unassuming manner, just off a footpath, is a kukui nut tree (Aleurites moluccana), which was donated to Disney by the people of Hawaii. It was planted at the resort on 5 April 1997, the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Magic Kingdom park.

The kukui nut tree is to be found growing across the 50th island state of America, although it is a native tree to Polynesia. Hawaiians saw this tree as a gift that would last forever. The fact it is to be found at the Disney resort, still growing strongly and heading to a half-century of residency, is testament to this. This tree helps to add to the authenticity of the resort, with the main hotel being designed to look like one of the many luxury resorts found in Hawaii on Waikiki Beach. This kukui nut tree and the other trees, flora and fauna at the resort all add to the feeling that you are on a Pacific Island.

Forestry Journal: The Morton Bay fig with its buttressed root.The Morton Bay fig with its buttressed root.

The kukui nut tree became the state tree of Hawaii in 1959 and is seen as an iconic and cultural symbol of the state. Hawaiians believe these trees, also known as candlenut trees, stand for peace, protection and enlightenment. The tree growing at the Disney Polynesian Village Resort was transplanted there directly from Hawaii. When it was planted it had a time capsule set into the soil around the roots and base of the tree.

Kukui nut trees have historically provided Hawaiians with a lighting fuel from the kernel inside the nuts themselves, hence the candlenut name. Each seed has a very high oil content; it is possible to actually light an individual nut and use it to provide light, never mind using them to produce oil fuel. In the past on Hawaii, the burning of a series of nuts, which each lasted for around 15 minutes, was used as a form of time measurement. The residue material left after pressing the nuts to produce oil is also used to feed cattle and as a fertiliser for crops.

Forestry Journal: The kukui nut tree and the Morton Bay fig tree both grow in Hawaii.The kukui nut tree and the Morton Bay fig tree both grow in Hawaii.

The trunks of kukui nut trees have been used in the past in the construction of canoes because of their remarkable buoyancy levels when on the water, while the bark can be used to create a fabric called kapa cloth.  Dyes made from these tree’s roots are used to paint the canoes, while dyes made from the crushing of the trees’ nut coverings can be used in tattooing.

These trees still remain popular today, with inamona, a condiment, made from roasted kukui nuts being a vital ingredient in the Hawaiian dish called poke. Kukui nuts are also used in Indonesia and Malaysia to make a sauce, which is eaten alongside vegetables and rice. Relish made from the nuts is also used in the preparation of food for celebratory gatherings.

Forestry Journal: The kukui nut tree is the state tree of Hawaii.The kukui nut tree is the state tree of Hawaii.

The oil is used as well in the production of skin products, including moisturising creams and body oils and lotions. It is seen as a great natural remedy to cure ailments and is good for treating burns and some skin problems. While the nut has such uses, the leaves can be used to form a poultice for dealing with swelling and infections.

The tender white flowers of the kukui nut tree are used to make leis. Lei is the name given to a Polynesian garland of flowers. In Hawaiian history, leis were considered sacred and prestigious. In the past they were only worn by the reigning kings of Hawaii. At the Disney Polynesian Village Resort, the Disney leadership team wear leis of black kukui nuts to symbolise their privileged position.

The wearing of leis is seen as offering ‘Aloha’ or a greeting and welcome to Disney guests in this resort, replicating the welcome given when people visit Polynesian islands. The kukui nut tree at the resort, in keeping with Hawaiian traditions and beliefs, was planted to the rear of the Great Ceremonial Hall and not by a member of the Disney staff, but by a hotel guest. Hawaiians believe that these trees shouldn’t be planted at the front of their homes but rather towards the rear or ‘hale’ and not by the homeowner, but by a stranger, to ensure good luck.

Forestry Journal: The kukui nut tree and the Morton Bay fig tree grow side by side.The kukui nut tree and the Morton Bay fig tree grow side by side.

The kukui nut tree at Disney has not quite reached the 80 ft. height that these trees can grow to, but it is distinctive with its light green, silvery leaves and its striking trunk. These leaves vary between having three to five lobes and some grow up to eight inches long and are not too dissimilar to those of a maple tree. The small green fruits, which contain the actual nuts, are hard to spot on the tree, both because of their size and their colour, which blends into the overall foliage.

Unlike the Morton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) tree which grows alongside it, there is no plaque to alert guests to the significance of the tree. The Morton Bay fig tree has a large imposing buttress root system and is another tree that comes from Hawaii, although it has only been naturalised there since the 1920s. The Morton Bay fig is native to Eastern Coastal Australia and is one of Australia’s largest fig trees. Both this tree and the kukui nut tree grow side by side and each has reached a significant size.

When I visited the resort in search of the kukui nut tree and enquired about its location, I was taken to see it by a member of the Disney Resort Team, who spoke fondly about it and told me just what the tree represented to them and the hotel. It was clear from what she said just how important this tree is to Disney and the teams at the resort.

The young lady also told me of the tree’s resilience, saying it had been struck by lightning twice and survived. It has also avoided damage during the many storms that hit Florida during the annual hurricane season, including almost being uprooted. Also, perhaps surprisingly for Florida, it has come through some cold snaps and freakish weather changes that have hit the Sunshine State in recent years. The kukui nut tree will continue to grow and thrive given its track record to date, and it will undoubtedly continue to bring pleasure to both Disney guests and staff alike.