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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sugar cane varieties had amazing uses in the Hawaii of old

By Duane Choy

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Heirloom ko cultivars, above and below, make fine garden additions.

Photos courtesy of Duane Choy

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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The first Polynesian settlers brought ko to Hawaiian shores by canoe. In Hawaiian terminology, the varieties included pulapula, the stalk with sprouts at the nodes which were propagated; 'aina ko, cane trash fibers (bagasse); okaoka ko; fine broken fragments of fiber; mu'okole, post-blooming cane; wai ko, the juice from the stalk; opu ko, a clump of cane; mäla ko, a field of cane; lälani ko, a row of growing cane; pae ko or ko a palena, cane bordering a kalo patch.

The variety ko kea (white cane) had a yellowish-green stem and thin skin that was easily separated or pulverized, and helped make bad-tasting medicine more palatable. The dark, brown-red honua 'ula, with purplish leaf sheaths and leaves, was another great medicinal cane. Young ko shoots were mashed with koali 'awa (Ipomoea indica, or morning glory) vines and salt to treat deep wounds /cuts, compound fractures, and to promote reattachment of severed limbs.

Beautiful manu lele ("flying bird") cane — featuring green stems with yellow and reddish-brown stripes — was notorious in hana aloha (love magic). Päpa'a ("hold fast") a red cane with light-brown fibers and an aroma of burnt sugar, was also incorporated into hana aloha.

Pili mai ("come hither"), a yellowish-green cane, also possessed the mystic energy to cause attachment.

Alluring lau kona ("gusty anger"), with green and white (sometimes yellow) striped canes and leaves, was the antidote to hana aloha. This cane counteracted love magic, kala hana aloha ("unloosening love work"), or pale hana aloha ("warding off love work").

As food, ko was not an isolated sweet condiment; in times of famine it was a "lifesaver" and also mitigated the gnawings of hunger on long excursions. Cane juice roasted over open fires was fed to nursing babies. Hawaiians extracted juice by peeling off the skin from cane stalk, and crushing or chewing it to rupture the fibers, then compressing out the juice by hand.

Ko leaves served as an interior wall covering for the Hawaiian hale (house), and in uplands where pili grass was unavailable, sometimes a kämala (temporary shelter) was thatched with ko leaves.

The bloom stalk and tassel of ko was crafted into darts for a game called ke'a pua. The ko stalk was also formed into arrows tipped with bone or the hard wood of kauila, and with bows were shot at rats in a sport called pana'iole. Plaiting hat braids with the skin of ko stalks evolved into an elegant art. Pages 40 and 41 of "Nä Lei Makamae" illustrate delicate ko tassel leis.

Island growers can rescue heirloom ko cultivars by planting them in our Hawaiian landscape. Ko makes a graceful and elegant border, screen, accent or individual specimen in the garden. Although plantation sugar cane is disappearing, heirloom ko should be conserved by garden guardian angels.

Duane Choy is a Hawai'i native-plant specialist. Reach him at hanahou@ecologyfund.net.