Tapping the Roots of Taro

by Betty Fullard-Leo

The roots of taro run deeper in the Hawaiian culture than they sink into the muddy patches of Waipi'o Valley or even into the ruins of ancient dry land lo'i (terraces) at Greenbank in North Kohala, once part of the great King Kamehameha's ahupua'a. In Hawaiian legend, the taro, or kalo plant originated when the son of Wakea (Sky Father) and his daughter Ho'ohoukalani was born lifeless and deformed like the gnarled root of a plant. The grieving parents buried the baby, but the next day a taro plant sprouted from the grave, which Wakea named Haloa. When the second son of Wakea and Ho'ohoukalani was born, they named him Haloa, also, because he was the younger brother of taro, from whom all Hawaiians descended.

Early Polynesian seafarers brought this food staple to Hawai'i aboard their sailing canoes, cooked and crushed, and wrapped in ti leaves to prevent spoilage. They also brought the huli, the young plants to start new crops, and soon taro thrived in valleys and plains throughout the Islands.

But cultivating taro is hard work requiring nine months growing time before it can be harvested, and as Islanders began working in new industries and their eating habits changed, production dwindled. For years, old timers like Uncle Ted Ka'aekuahiwi, who often demonstrates pounding po'i the old way, with a stone pestle and a wooden board, at Island food festivals such as The Orchid at Mauna Lani's Big Island Bounty, were the only ones interested in keeping taro alive. In recent years, however, a rennaisance of the Hawaiian culture has sparked new interest in the healthy foodstuff, sometimes called the "heartbeat of Hawai'i" for both its spiritual significance and its dietary importance. As sugarcane was phased out and more land became available on the Big Island, cultivation began to increase. Today, perhaps 450 acres are under cultivation, much of it in the Big Island's Waipi'o Valley, as well as in Hanalei, Lumaha'i and Hanapepe Valleys on Kaua'i, and the Ke'anae Peninsula on Maui.

Hawaiians ate the corm or root, the leaves and the stems. They considered the plant akin to a god, and believed they ingested his power when they downed a bowl of po'i. The corm was cooked in an imu for hours, then peeled and pounded with a stone as water was added to bring it to the thick, sticky consistency of po'i. Taro tops might be bundled with pork or butterfish to make laulau or simply boiled and eaten like spinach. Grated and mixed with coconut milk, then baked, taro corms make a pudding called kulolo, which continues to be a treat enjoyed today.

Rich in calcium, riboflavin, iron and thiamin with no cholesterol and almost no fat, taro is the healthiest of foods, as well as a medicinal preparation for many ailments. The cut portion of the haha (stem) can be rubbed on insect bites and rashes, the thin skin from around the stem helps to clot blood when wrapped around a wound, and po'i can be used to soothe burns.

John Vincent, 51, remembers hauling taro by wagon-drawn mule up the steep precarious road from Waipi'o Valley in the 1960s. He and his wife Annette still work five acres of taro that they plant and harvest year round on leased land. Vincent says, "The land has been in the family for 150 years-coming up to four generations. It was passed down to me, Hawaiian style, for $1 and love. Today, the older generation is giving up taro and not many youngsters are interested, but I'm lucky my son John, Jr., (27) works with me." Vincent and his son have plans to add another five acres into taro cultivation.

He and his family cleared taro patches by hand with knives and machetes, then burned away the piles of brush. He tilled the land in the remote valley using four-wheel drive machinery, but sometimes when it was too wet, even that had to be done by hand.

Several types of the nearly 200 varieties of taro are grown in Waipi'o: lehua, most in demand of all varieties with purple corms and reddish tints to its leaves, preferred for kulolo and po'i; moi, which has a good consistency for po'i; api'i, a white type used for kulolo; and pololu, which is popular for its shiny lu'au leaves used in cooking laulau. Many dryland varieties, such as the Japanese adaimo, are not grown in Waipi'o at all.

Vincent and other valley taro growers, such as John and Margaret Loo and Kia Fronda (who welcomes school children to learn the old ways of planting in his seven-acre patch), supply taro corms and lu'au leaves to the fancy resorts along the Kohala Coast to be used in regional cuisine. In Waimea, Cook's Discoveries in the historic Spencer House is a retailer for po'i and kulolo made from taro harvested by Vincent and Jerry Konanui, another Waipi'o grower. The demand always out distances the supply.

With renewed interest in the healthy, but often scarce staple, taro festivals have sprung up across the state, celebrating its importance. On the northern side of the Island, the Aloha Taro Festival in Honoka'a has been promoting the industry since 1992. Again this year on November 8, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. taro farmers will share their expertise at the festival, staged at the County Gymnasium, where displays on taro growing and preparation, as well as music by local entertainers, crafts, malassadas from Tex's, saimin and baked goods prepared by the Lions Club will highlight the community affair. Phone 808/775-0457.

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