Episode 7: Canoe plants

Feb 5, 2016

The first Polynesian navigators arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in canoes laden with plants that would become the foundation of the most complex and sophisticated agricultural systems in Oceania. These “canoe plants,” as they are known today, had been cultivated by the Polynesians for millennia and sustained their societies as they moved out across the Pacific. The navigators brought some twenty-five differing canoe plants to Hawai‘i. There was noni for medicine, kukui for light, kamani for wood. Food plants included hearty ‘uala or sweet potato, multi-colored stalks of kō or sugarcane, dense orbs of ‘ulu or breadfruit, and the most important of them all, kalo or taro.

In Hawaiian mythology, kalo is the root of life, the body of Hāloa, the stillborn older brother of the Hawaiian people. The early Hawaiians grew hundreds of varieties of kalo, in valleys from Hanalei to Hāmākua. E kanu i ka huli oi ha‘ule ka ua, These are the words of one ‘olelo no‘eau or proverb. Plant the taro stalks while there is rain—in other words, do your work when opportunity affords. It was a lesson that the navigators embraced—they arrived in a land full of opportunity and began to work in partnership with it.