Native Hawaiian Plants Part IV - Taro, the heartbeat of Hawai'i, its land and its people

Lo'i at Ulupo Heiau, Lo'i at Lyon Arboretum

My last piece on Native Hawaiian plants is dedicated to the king of Hawaiian plants, the Hawaiian Taro. Did you know that when the first Polynesian settlers arrived on the Hawaiian Islands about 1,700 years ago that only a few edible plants existed on the new land? There were a few ferns and fruits that grew in the higher elevated areas. Research shows that the voyagers introduced about 30 plants to the islands, mainly for food. And the most important one was taro or in Hawaiian, kalo. Poi, the sticky paste made from the taro tuber was the main staple of the Native Hawaiians’ diet for centuries and it is still enjoyed by many today.

I’m jumping a little ahead of myself, but according to Chuck “Doc” Burrows, a Hawaiian naturalist and a former Kamehameha Schools teacher, who conducts the tours at Kawainui Marsh which I was fortunate to encounter last week and which will be the topic of a future blog, their goal as preservationists and economists is to achieve sustainability for Hawai'i’s future by cultivating taro in the Kawainui Marsh lands.

Taro represents the “staff of life” for Hawaiians. An ancient Hawaiian legend tells of Wakea, Father Heaven, who had a child with Ho'ohokulani , Daughter of Earth Mother. The deformed infant, Haloa (meaning “everlasting breath” in Hawaiian), was born prematurely. It has been said that Haloa’s body, shaped like a kalo bulb, was buried by Wakea at one corner of his house. It grew to be the first kalo plant. The couple’s second child, also Haloa, was a healthy boy and became the ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Haloa was to respect and look after his older brother for all eternity. The elder Haloa, the root of life, would always sustain and nourish his young brother and his descendants. Thus Hawaiians are very respectful of kalo.

Hawaiian protocols relate deeply with taro in many ways. For example, no one is allowed to fight or argue when a bowl of poi is open. According to Hawaiian custom, it is disrespectful to fight in front of an elder. And as the living embodiment of Haloa, taro is the "elder brother" of all Hawaiians. There is also the story about keiki. In the book called “A Little Book of Aloha” by Renata Provenzano, it says, “Traditionally, a bowl of poi sits in the center of the kitchen table in Hawaiian homes. Children are taught to only take from the center of the bowl of poi and never scrape the sides of the bowl. Perhaps this teaches children the principle to always take the best of what is offered to them in life.”

By sitting together and eating poi, one at a time, from the same poi bowl('umeke) placed in the center of the diners, the ceremony of celebrating life is conducted. This brings the people together and supports the relationship of 'ohana (family) and of appreciation with the 'aumakua (ancestors). The Hawaiians attach the suffix -na to 'oha (kalo shoot) to build the word 'ohana. 'Ohana are the off-shoots, budding and branching from the parent stock. The Hawaiian people value this concept very deeply.

The kalo plant is said to be kinolau, the body form, of Kane, the procreator. The small round depression where the taro stalk meets the leaf surface is called the piko, which is the Hawaiian name for “the human belly button.”

It has been said that the early Hawaiians ate as much as 15 pounds of poi per person per day. That is a lot of taro! Taro was such a revered source of nourishment that only men were allowed to grow it. Then again, growing of taro was hard work. The men worked knee-deep in mud and water in deep valleys (wetland method) far removed from the conveniences of modern society. Taro cultivation is also affected heavily by weather. There was an article in the newspaper just recently that due to adverse weather that our taro crop this quarter is down by 20% compared to last year. This means that poi is going to cost more and may be harder to find.

Taro grows in tropical Africa, the West Indies, Pacific nations and in countries bordering the Indian Ocean in South Asia. I’m not sure to what extent these other countries rely on taro compared to the people of ancient Hawai'i. In ancient Hawai'i kalo was the food of choice because it was dependable and adaptable to grow. Most people depended on wetland kalo, which was dependent on water. The planters were engineers because much skill was involved in growing it. They had to create pond field (lo'i) terraces, create irrigational streams and build and maintain the walls with soil and stone. This was all done through the cooperative work of the community thus social and political abilities were needed as well. This whole scheme of streams and water ditches produced wealth and security for the people and became the model for the community sustenance. Varieties of taro grew based on the conditions and location of the fields. Dryland taro was also grown in the lower forests where the soil was rich and the rainfall sufficient. The planters knew which kind of taro makes the best poi, which variety has the most tender leaves and which has the necessary medicinal properties.

The hearty plant is comprised of a starchy tuber (kalo), succulent stalk (huli), and large, arrowhead-shaped , dark green leaves (lu'au). All parts can be eaten. Kalo is steamed and pounded to make poi, the main staple. Poi is fed to babies as their first whole and natural food, as well as to the elderly, for its ease of digestion and high vitamin content. Some people call poi the "soul food" of Hawai'i. Poi is eaten fresh or allowed to ferment for a few days, creating a sour taste considered pleasant but not alcoholic. Chips can also be made from taro. It has a nice blend of sweet and salty.

Taro tubers, Poi

Lu'au is a nutritious and tasty leaf, similar to spinach. It is used to make lau lau. It is also medicinal. Lu'au supplies high amounts of vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium, iron, phosphorus, thiamine and riboflavin.

Lau lau wrapped in lu'au leaf , Lau lau opened
The kalo plant has medicinal uses. Poi is used to settle the stomach. A mixture of poi and ripe noni fruit is applied over boils. Poi with pia (arrowroot starch) cures diarrhea. A piece of taro stem, haha, touched to the skin stops surface bleeding. Some infections respond to the use of taro leaves mashed with Hawaiian

salt. This paste can be applied to an injury, covered and wrapped with a large taro leaf. The stem can be cut and rubbed to your skin when you are stung by an insect.

Mud from the taro patch was used as a black dye for lauhala and kapa cloth. Some leaf-stem juice yields red dye. Also, diluted poi was used as a paste to glue pieces of kapa cloth together.

The huli is used to reproduce the kalo plant as well as the 'oha, the shoots growing underground.

I realize that I have talked a lot about this special Hawaiian plant. As you can see, it is very important as a source of food but more than that, it is the foundation of the way of life for the Hawaiians, in body and mind. It truly is the heartbeat of Hawaii, its land and its people. May we continue to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture by honoring and growing taro.
E malama pono.

Honolulu Festival

1 comment:

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