I BUY at least 50 leis a year. If I had the materials and the time I would make them myself, but I don’t, so I buy them — for birthdays, weddings, retirements, funerals, graduations, Lei Day (May 1), friends and their friends arriving in Hawaii from out of town, and sometimes, for no reason at all, just to place on my own shoulders.

Most of the time, how and where I buy the lei depends on the occasion and the recipient. A designer lei, ordered ahead from an artisan and wrapped in a special ti-leaf bundle, called puolo, is top of the line. Honolulu’s Chinatown is the middle road, where leis are abundant and always available, and you point and pick and run off with your choice in a plastic bag. The lei stands at Honolulu International Airport, where hideous spray-painted carnation strands hang side by side with fragrant ginger and pikake, are always the last resort — the 7-Eleven of the lei world.

”There are very few leis that are not good,” said Marie McDonald, a well-known lei maker from Waimea on the Big Island and author of ”Ka Lei,” the definitive book on leis (Ku Paa Publishing). ”They’re all good, because the whole idea of presenting a lei is to show honor, to show high regard, love. And you can do it with every lei. But, over the years, some have become more special than others.”

The lei may be the quintessential symbol of a Hawaiian greeting, but history, legend and superstition have created some arcane elements in the protocol of this beloved Hawaiian custom.

I learned about lei protocol the hard way. Many years ago, I gave a friend a lei of red hala, made from the fragrant fruit of the pandanus tree, at the start of a business venture. The lei maker in Chinatown had cut the ends of the cone-shaped fruit and strung them between the anise-scented tips of bright green lauae ferns, making an extraordinary composition of geometry, color and fragrance.

My friend expressed genuine appreciation. But my choice of lei, I was to learn, was controversial.

”Never give a hala lei at the start of a venture,” a lei maker told me on a subsequent foray to Chinatown. ”Only at the end. People think it’s bad luck.” Other lei makers disagree, saying the hala is one of the nicest that can be given, but local politicians on the campaign trail have been known to scurry off the stage at the sight of a well-wisher approaching with a hala lei.

In times before Western contact, commoners giving leis to royalty had to present them to an intermediary with a bow, observing a taboo against raising their nonroyal hands above the head of an alii. Violators could face punishment as severe as death. Western influences, particularly the tourist industry, have tempered tradition and added some flourishes, such as Lei Day, initiated in 1928 by the poet Don Blanding, an Oklahoma native living in Hawaii, in an effort to preserve the custom.

Lei Day today is a statewide celebration, with a royal court selected every year, school pageants, the ubiquitous giving and wearing of leis, and an islandwide lei making contest with the most flamboyant display of garlands to be seen in Hawaii. Even the practice of giving a kiss with a lei, commonly observed today, was established by a World War II entertainer who claimed it was a Hawaiian custom.

”Traditionally, Hawaiians embrace each other or touch noses when they give a lei,” said Mrs. McDonald, the lei maker from Waimea.

”The kissing is very touristy,” added Barbara Meheula, another revered lei maker on the Big Island. ”The most precious thing to a Hawaiian is breath, the ha. The old-timers will put their cheek next to the person receiving the lei and softly give them the ha, the breath, because everything you have in your heart is in the ha.”

The practice of throwing a lei overboard in hopes that it reaches the shore, thus predicting a return to the islands, was popularized during the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the heyday of the luxury liners. But Hawaiians ”never throw away their leis, ” Mrs. McDonald said. After it is worn, a lei is draped over a photograph or taken to the cemetery or returned to the earth as compost, but never put in the wastebasket. Most leis will keep overnight in the refrigerator, in a plastic bag. Many can be dried; a light mist of hair spray helps keep bugs away while they dry, Mrs. Meheula said.

There are dos and don’ts in receiving a lei, too.

”Don’t ever take a lei off and swing it around,” advised Euphemia Nagashima, former Hawaiiana coordinator for Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which organizes the annual Hawaiian Lei Contest on Lei Day. ”No matter how simple, someone put a lot of love into that lei.”

A more common offense is removing a lei after it has been received, which Hawaiians consider rude.

Some leis, such as hala, favored by the likes of Hiiaka, sister of the volcano goddess, Pele, were considered by the ancients to be as much good luck as bad. Hala may be ”the most misunderstood of all the leis,” Mrs. Meheula added, ”probably because it is also the most cherished.

”For every single New Year luau, everyone in my family wears a hala lei,” she said. ”It’s good luck for the year, because hala means cleansing, like firecrackers for the Chinese and mochi for the Japanese.”

Hala represented good luck during the monthslong Makahiki season of feasting and thanksgiving. ”In the old days, the only time you could get married was during Makahiki, and the lei that was often given was hala,” said Mrs. Meheula. Yet the Hawaiian Dictionary by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert defines hala as ”sin,” ”offense,” and also ”to pass away, to die.” Hala is the ultimate flower lei for a funeral.

Leis most popularly used to greet visitors are the sweetly scented, yellow-and-white plumeria, white tuberose, ginger, pikake (Arabian jasmine), and the unscented, lavender to purple dendrobium and vanda orchids, strung in several styles ranging from prosaic to exquisite. The dainty yellow-green pakalana (Chinese violet) is less known but much loved by islanders, particularly the old-timers. (”Give me a full moon and a pakalana lei, and I’ll say yes to anything,” my meditation teacher, Nana Veary, used to say with a mischievous smile.)

The heavily scented blossoms (or extremely feminine ones, like roses) are usually given to women, while the unscented lei, like the feathery aalii and the cigar lei, made of the cigar flower, or kika, which can be red, orange or yellow, are typically chosen for men.

The tissue-thin ilima blossom, picked early in the morning while the buds are just opening and strung while the day is still cool, was traditionally preferred by the alii because of its beauty and sensuality, according to Mrs. McDonald. An ilima lei was once accepted as payment for taxes, along with pigs and sweet potatoes, and is still considered ”the lei of distinction,” she said, worn in multiple strands on special occasions such as election night.

The three most common types of lei making are the kui method, in which materials are strung end to end; haku, or plaited, and wili, or wound. Knotting and stitching are used in more ambitious creations. The kui method uses string or thread; other leis are generally made of plant material only. It can take from five minutes to four hours to make a lei, Mrs. Meheula said.

At the top of the lei hierarchy, and among the more expensive, are the native plants that were offered to Laka, the Hawaiian goddess of the dance, still honored by hula schools today. The most visible and accessible among these is maile, a green-leafed vine that is wound into open-ended strands that emit heady clouds of anise-like fragrance. At blessings to open new buildings and businesses, long strands of maile are entwined in front of the entrance and untied ceremoniously (never cut) to signify that the blessing is complete. In ancient times, maile was the lei for all people, while leis of feathers and sperm whale teeth were strictly reserved for royalty.

Maile leis also are given at graduations and other celebrations. ”Parents will hike in a storm to gather maile for their child’s graduation, because it signifies that the child will continue to grow and have life,” Mrs. Meheula said. ”Maile represents life and growth.”

The most astonishing maile lei I have ever laid eyes on was made by a master woodworker on Kauai, Bob Hamada. He was well into his 70’s when, for his daughter’s high school graduation, he hiked into the mountains and gathered maile and mokihana — rare, cube-shaped seed capsules also strongly scented like anise. Mokihana retains its prized scent for years. It grows only on Kauai, and it is rare to see even one strand of it, much less several. Mr. Hamada strung five very long, graduated strands of mokihana — up to almost six feet long — and rested them on a luxurious bed of maile, to protect his daughter’s skin from the powerful ”mokihana burn.” So powerful is mokihana that it burns delicate skin and is often worn over clothing or a protective bed of foliage.

There are many lei connoisseurs, including Mrs. Meheula, who feel that the packaging of a lei is as important as the lei itself. Mrs. Meheula makes her own containers — puolo — out of ti leaves, palm and coconut fronds, and, occasionally, bamboo. When someone once ordered a lei for a blind recipient, she chose fragrant pikake for the lei and carved a bamboo container — a tactile and olfactory extravaganza.

Brides often wear multiple strands of pikake and ginger, while bridegrooms wear maile. Although leis of ultraluxurious Niihau shells are often worn by a bride in 10 long strands, fresh flowers tend to be worn at chest length, ”where the heart is,” Mrs. Meheula said. ”And they should always be closed, representing the eternal circle of love.” The bridegroom’s open maile lei, she continues, ”welcomes all the good wishes of the guests and sends out the same on behalf of the family.”

New styles and materials in lei making keep the art form vibrant and evolving. The Micronesian ginger lei — white ginger buds fanning outward from stems woven macrame-style — is a fairly recent, and economical, innovation, introduced by visitors from low-lying Micronesian islands where blossoms are less abundant. The ti-leaf lei is now in every Chinatown lei stand in Honolulu, the shiny, ropey strands paired with various nouveau materials such as berrylike red schefflera (octopus tree) flowers and rounded green sea grapes. Non-native, common and culturally insignificant, the schefflera and sea grapes — a mokihana look-alike — represent the more commercial aspects of modern lei making.

In contrast, the orchid lip lei, also called the feathered orchid lei, is a marvel of ingenuity, made of up to 800 dendrobium orchid petals, sewn flat in a dramatic, wavy, purple-and-white design. The lei has no fragrance but is visually stunning. Various lei makers claim to have invented this now-popular (and lavish) lei. One of them, Michael Miyashiro of Rainforest Plantes et Fleurs on Oahu, has pictures of some he made in 1988, long before they began appearing in Chinatown lei stands.

”It doesn’t matter who invented it,” he said when I admired the photos. ”A lei is meant to be given, and it’s simply a part of you, for someone else to wear and enjoy.”

Where they say it with flowers

Contest

The entries in this year’s Hawaiian Lei Contest, sponsored by the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, will be on view on Saturday, May 1, from 12:30 to 6 P.M. at Queen Kapiolani Park in Waikiki.

Buying

On Oahu, lei stands line the streets of Honolulu’s Chinatown. Among them are Lin’s Lei Shop, 1017A Maunakea Street, (808) 537-4112; Cindy’s Lei and Flower Shoppe, 1034 Maunakea Street, (808) 536-6538; Lita’s Leis, 59 North Beretania Street, (808) 521-9065, and Sweetheart’s Lei Shop, 69 North Beretania Street, (808) 537-3011.

Prices start around $3 for a simple tuberose lei and range up to $25 and higher for elaborate orchid creations.

The designer lei makers of Hawaii include Barbara Meheula, who arranges flowers at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on the Big Island of Hawaii, (808) 882-7222, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from around 5 A.M. to noon. (Visitors are welcome to watch her work there.) At other times she can be reached at her Honaunau farm, (808) 328-9749. Leis must be preordered; a maile or pikake lei in a natural wrapping such as ti leaves averages $35 to $40.

On Oahu, Michael Miyashiro of Rainforest Plantes et Fleurs, (808) 942-1550, is available by phone only. His leis of dendrobium orchid petals cost around $32 to $80.

Museum-quality Niihau shell leis, the most luxurious of the permanent lei styles, are available at Kauai Heritage Center of Hawaiian Culture and the Arts, Kauai Shopping Village, (808) 821-2070. They range from $85 to $6,500, depending on the type of shell and the intricacy of the design.

Photos: Stringing a lei at a Honolulu shop. Luana Gomes selling leis at a pageant in Waimea. Sophia’s Lei Stand at Honolulu airport. The lei maker Marie McDonald at her Waimea home. (Photographs by Peter French for The New York Times; center photograph by Douglas Peebles)(pg. 10); A customer receives a lei at the Old Hawaii on Horseback pageant on the big island. (Peter French for The New York Times)(pg. 26)