Taro: Hawaii's Roots

by Leilehua Yuen


Most Hawaiian grown taro is allocated to four major uses: Poi, table taro, taro chips, and luau leaf. Taro for poi is cultivated by both the dryland and wetland methods. Varieties commonly used are the Lehua Maoli, `Maui' Lehua, and Moi. The Chinese Bun Long is used as table taro, luau (taro leaf), and - the delight of local yuppies - taro chips. Dasheen or araimo, Japanese taro, also is used as a table taro. The Samoan Niue is primarily used as a table taro.

Like other farming, taro cultivation is demanding and the financial return can be low at times. Farmers work bent over in knee deep water and mud, from sun up to sun down. Areas suitable for taro cultivation are often far from conveniences such as decent roads, schools, hospitals, and shopping. Yet the number of people interested in raising taro is slowly rising. In 1990, the Big Island had 86 commercial taro farms. In 1994 there were 105.

A lot of Hawaiian culture is based on taro cultivation, for example, you cannot fight when the bowl of poi is open. By ancient Hawaiian custom, it is considered disrespectful to fight in front of an elder. One should not raise the voice, speak angrily, or make rude comments or gestures. How is this connected to an open poi bowl? Because Haloa (Taro) is the elder brother of humans.

The ancient Hawaiians identified so strongly with taro that the Hawaiian term for family, `ohana, is derived from the word `oha, the shoot or sucker which grows from the taro corm. As the young shoots grow from the corm, people grow from the family.

While varieties of taro grow in almost all tropical regions of the world, Hawai`i seems to have some of the strongest taro traditions. According to Native Planters in Hawaii, by Handy and Handy, taro ". . . is a plant of unique and distinctive character which was brought by planters to a higher state of cultivation in old Hawaii than anywhere else in the world. . . . Native cultivation of taro in Hawaii had created a greater number of varieties adaptable to varying conditions of locale, soil, and water than are to be found anywhere else in Polynesia or, we believe, in the world."

Varieties of taro available today are much different than in ancient times. Many of the ancient varieties have disappeared through lack of cultivation, and immigrants and commercial cultivators have brought new varieties.

The problems of taro farmers also have changed. In ancient times, drought, hurricane and warfare were the major calamities farmers faced.

Today, introduced diseases, loss of arable land due to various kinds of development, water rights, pollution, and the world economy all must be factored into the farmer's business plan.

But also, as the world has changed, farmers are changing their ways of dealing with it. They are banding together in associations to share knowledge and other resources. As more is learned about taro, ways to combat diseases should be found. Already, much research has been done in tissue culture for taro, providing disease free plants.

Over the years, people from around the world have come to Hawai`i, and some have become taro farmers. Some, like the Chinese and Japanese, have brought their own varieties and cultivated them.

Others began to cultivate the Hawaiian and introduced varieties already here. Taro varieties and knowledge were traded and contributed to modern Hawaii's famous blending of cultures, helping to make all of Hawai`i one `ohana.

In the Beginning

Before there were people, there were the gods. They had descent and genealogy, like people. Some were more like humans, and some were less. Among the more human-like were Wakea - the Sky Father, and Papa - the Earth Mother. They lived in a place which floated about between the clouds. Even now, people who look carefully at the clouds will see some which look solid, like islands in the sky. They are the cloud-island homes of gods and goddesses.

Wakea was tall and strong, with broad shoulders and strong arms from hours at surfing. His legs were well muscled from striding about his cloud-island home, which looked much like Hawai`i. He had curling black hair and eyes the color of polished kukui. Papa was almost his height, with a lovely back, straight as a cliff, and a soft full bosom. Her hair was the color of polished koa, and rippled in the light. Her legs were shapely, but strong, and she could walk as far and as fast as Wakea. Her eyes glittered like stars. They were beautiful in the way of humans, and had the same desires as humans.

Wakea wold bury his nose in Papa's long sweetly scented hair and inhale its fragrance. She would turn her head and press noses with him, sniffing gently in the honi, the Hawaiian kiss.

"This flower is blooming," Wakea would say.

"Then let us enjoy it before it wilts," Papa would reply. Hand in hand they would retire to a kipuka floored with soft ferns, or perhaps to a stream with banks covered in soft moss. As the only creatures like themselves on their cloud-island, they had all of it for their private garden and could go where they pleased and do as they wished.

Soon, all of this ho`oipoipo had the usual result, and children were born. Many children were born. When Wakea walked up behind Papa to press his nose against her neck, instead of "Let us enjoy this flower before it wilts," Papa was as likely to say "The baby is hungry. Go catch more fish." Disgruntled, Wakea would take his net and go.

Wakea Sees Ho`ohoku-ka-lani

Wakea did not have much use for babies and spent more and more time away from home. He was away so much that he did not notice when the babies were not babies any more. One day, Wakea noticed a beautiful young woman walking in the forest. He followed her.

"You, you look familiar," he told her.

"I am your youngest daughter, Ho`ohoku-ka-lani," she replied. Wakea followed her home and saw his wife and daughter together.

Ho`ohoku's back was as straight as a cliff. Papa's was bent from reaching down to pick up babies. Ho`ohoku's bosom was full and soft. Papa's was flattened and stretched from nursing. Ho`ohoku could stride through the forest as fast as Wakea. Papa took short steps, from years of keeping pace with the short legs of children. Ho`ohoku's hair was the color of polished koa and rippled in the light. Papa's hair was the color of burned out firewood which had given up its light. Ho`ohoku's eyes were like stars. In Papa's eyes, the stars had died when Wakea ceased to look into them.

Wakea began to spend more time at home again, and Papa was glad. He took his stone adz into the forest and cut dead wood for cooking fires. He cut good strong wood for house posts and new `umeke, as well as wood for a new canoe. He sat in front of the work shed and carved.

Papa paused in her tapa beating and looked fondly over at him. "It is good to have you spend more time with me," she told him. "Now that the children are grown, we can enjoy those flowers more often." Papa rinsed the wauke slime from her hands, stood up, and stretched. She walked over beside Wakea and sat down, then leaned over and put her nose to his for a tender honi. Wakea responded, but his thoughts were on Ho`ohoku.

Wakea burned with desire for Ho`ohoku-ka-lani. He began to develop a deceitful plan.

Wakea's Plan

"Papa," he said one afternoon. "Now that we have so many children, this place is becoming crowded. They do not respect us, they do not respect each other. We are gods. It is not right for us to waste our mana in this undisciplined behavior. We need rules. It will teach them discipline." Papa nodded and continued weaving.

"I have decided it is necessary for men and women to spend certain times apart from one another, to preserve their mana," Wakea said. "I think that men and women, being different, need different foods. I will build a hale for us men to eat in, and another for you women to eat in." Papa accepted the plan. Men did not always act in ways she found appetizing.

Wakea took a deep breath. "It is also necessary for men and women to sleep apart on certain days each month. This will let them preserve their mana for days when they must work hard. I will build separate hale for these special times."

Papa stopped her weaving. "Are you sure that is necessary, Wakea?" He looked at her a long time. True, she no longer looked as she did when they first met. But, it was because she had borne his children. And she had done so over and over, for love of him. But she had turned away from him and devoted herself to the children when he had wanted her for himself. True, she now had a quiet, regal beauty. She had not been that way when she was younger, and Ho`ohoku would not be that way for years, if ever. She was stronger than he remembered. It attracted him, but it also frightened him. "Yes," he replied. "It is necessary."

On the first night of the new kapu, Wakea lured Ho`ohoku out of the women's sleeping hale. He led her to a secret place and kept her there almost until dawn. Then he allowed her to return to the women's hale, cautioning her to slip in quietly so no one would know she had been out.

Each kapu night Wakea had Ho`ohoku meet him. Many months went by, and Papa was none the wiser. Occasionally she remarked on Ho`ohoku's sleepiness some days. "Wakea," she would say, "Does our Ho`ohoku seem healthy to you? She has been listless the past three days. Her tapa does not stick together well when she pounds it because there is no strength in her arm." Wakea would reassure her.

"It is nothing. She is young and has not developed her full strength. You worry too much because she is your baby." Papa would nod and relax.


At last the inevitable happened, and Ho`ohoku was pregnant. When she no longer went to the women's hale to spend the time of her ma`i, Papa knew what had happened.

Curses, kapa beaters, and chunks of soggy wauke flew. Papa cried, she cursed, she wept. "How could you do this? Why? Away! Go away from me!" All of the love she had felt for Wakea was turned immediately to hate.

Wakea loaded his new canoe with all of the things he would need for a long sea voyage. He directed Ho`ohoku to weave a sail.

He filled his ipu-wai from a clean spring. Thoroughly oiled and plugged with a pu stopper, they would keep the water clean and fresh for a long time. `Ulu and `uala were packed to eat. The `ulu were pounded into a thick paste. Some was fermented and some was allowed to dry. If one kind went bad on the voyage, the other kind might last. The `uala were allowed to air dry with their fine coating of lepo to absorb any moisture which might settle on them.

Young food plants carefully wrapped for protection against the salt spray were added to the load. If there was no food where Wakea was headed, he would have to be able to grow his own.

For meat, pigs, chickens, and dogs were caged and loaded on the canoe. At last he fetched Ho`ohoku and set out.

A New Land

The fine lauhala sail which Ho`ohoku had plaited caught the wind, and the couple was sailing from the land between the clouds to the ocean below. The narrow bow of the canoe sliced through wavelets as it skimmed across the water. Soon, they reached Hawai`i.

They sailed by various shores and at last found a valley which could be their home. Wakea beached the canoe and set about building a hale for himself and Ho`ohoku.

First he selected the site. Then Wakea went to the beach and carried rocks to build the lower wall. He went to the forest and used his stone adz to cut trees for the house posts. He put the bases into holes in the ground and built the stone wall up around them. Then he added the roof poles. He had to cut many fine saplings to make enough ribs to tie the thatching to.

While he built the frame, Ho`ohoku collected ti leaves and tied them into bundles for the thatch. Wakea spread `ili`ili for the floor and covered them with fine sand.

Ho`ohoku plaited lauhala to make a floor covering to go over the sand. She trimmed the thorns from the leaves with her sharp bamboo knife. She softened the leaves by pulling them back and forth over the dull side of her knife. She coiled them one way and then the other. Then she began to coil them into wheels, with the diameter the same size as the length of her forearm. When she had enough wheels of leaves, she sorted them by color and decided on a pattern for her mat. Then, with her fingernails she stripped the leaves into long narrow pieces and began to weave.

At last the hale was complete.

Whether it was because of the stress of the sea voyage, her mother's curses, or some other reason, Ho`ohoku began her labor too soon. It was long and painful, and Ho`ohoku did not have her mother there to help her, but she did not scream or cry. At last the baby was born.

This first child was premature, a legless, armless, formless lump of flesh. Ho`ohoku and Wakea named him Haloa-naka, but he still died. Wakea buried Haloa-naka at the East corner of the house. Each day Ho`ohoku tended the burial site. She carried water in Wakea's ipuwai and gave Haloa-naka a drink. She stirred the mud as if she were tucking a blanket around her baby. She kept the area clean and free of weeds and animals. In a few days, a tightly furled green leaf poked up through the mud. "Oh, Wakea," she called, "Look at our son! See how he grows? He stands already!" Ho`ohoku continued to care for her firstborn son, who grew into a large and handsome taro plant.

Later, Ho`ohoku gave birth to a human child. He also was named Haloa. He was perfect in form, intelligent, and handsome. He grew like any boy, and became a man. He became the ancestor of humans. He was taught to honor, respect, and care for his elder brother so that his brother always would watch over and care for him.

So now, even today, the descendants of Haloa-the-elder provide nourishing food for the descendants of Haloa-the-younger.

Return to the US Subject Index
Return to the Literary Zone Index
Return to the MAIN MENU