Kalo (Taro), Rooted in the Hearts of Hawai’i

February 20, 2017

Lush kalo ponds are found throughout the islands. The ponds are often times happily shared with varieties of fish and native birds such as elepaio.

Like many of you, I never get tired of seeing the multitudes of greenery in the islands. It could be the distant peaks of velvety mountain ranges from a window, ferns crouching through a pathway to the trunks of bulky trees or the constant-hula movement of tall palm trees in the air. Among the many greens composing the island scenery, what I cherish the most are those super-sized tropical leaves. Some of them soar as tall as we are or much taller! Others span so wide that they easily wrap around us. Surrounded by these giant plants, I realize how little my presence is and how trivial my problems are. The magnitude of these foliage allows me to see the world differently as if I just drank a magical potion and shrunk down in size. It’s a very refreshing and humbling experience at the same time.

In Hawai’i, I feel this way especially when I encounter a verdant kalo (means taro plant in Hawaiian) field with full-grown bushes. In the midst of these tall kalo plants, farmers look like Lego figures under the large elephant-ear-shaped leaves. They look like they are the ones who are being nurtured and protected rather than them caring and nurturing for these plants.

In the Kumulipo (the Hawaiian creation chant), it is told that Wakea (the Sky Father) and his daughter Hoʻohokukalani had a child named “Haloa-naka” (meaning everlasting breath) that was stillborn and buried in the ground. From the very spot, kalo grew from his grave and became the source of care and supply to his second brother also named Haloa known as man. From this, the Hawaiian people consider kalo as their ancestor and hold a special connection to it.

Ohana, the Hawaiian word for family, traces back its root to the kalo plant. Shoots growing out from the corm of the kalo is called “oha.” In Hawaiian, “-na” is equivalent to the plural form of “-s” in English. Combining these two, “ohana” means a group of people came out from the same root—in other words known as family.

Neat compartments of endless taro fields in Hanalei Valley, Kauai. About two-thirds of the Hawai’i's kalo production come from this approximately 235-acre kalo field.

Though its origin is thought to be in the Indo-Malaysian peninsula, Polynesian settlers in the Hawaiian Islands are often given credit for their dedication to harvesting kalo. According to some resources, Hawaiian people once accumulated over 300 varieties of kalo. Among those, 84 cultivars are identified as distinctive to Hawai’i today and 69 of them are the breeds derived from native Hawaiian plants.

Every part of the kalo can be consumed; the leaves taste similar to spinach, starchy corms are cooked and served as poi (pounded kalo), leaf-stem juice and mud in which kalo grows can be used for the dye of Hawaiian kapa cloth. Some varieties also worked as a medicine; poi can be applied over infected areas as a poultice, and the stem can be used to stop bleeding.

In the Hawaiian tradition, when a poi `umeke (bowl) is placed on the dinner table, it is considered that the spirit of Haloa-naka (the elder brother of mankind) is present. At that time, all family members that are gathered around the poi bowl are to end any conflict between each other immediately. The presence of kalo always helped families find each other and helped bound them together.

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