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Remembering the Role of Taro in Hawaii

Annual Taro Variety Field Day will display taro varieties.

Mana Ulu, a variety that produces branching corms, makua, and makes yellow-colored poi.

By Alton S. Arakaki

Today rice is our primary source of carbohydrate for the energy our body requires to conduct our everyday activities. Hawaii doesn’t produce any rice or other carbohydrate grains.

Most of the grains we consume are naturally adapted and produced in the temperate regions of the world. People that live within tropical latitudes primarily depend on root crops that are more naturally adapted to the climatic conditions for their carbohydrate needs. Root crops such as true yams, sweet potato, cassava and taro are heavily depended on to provide daily rations of carbohydrate. Breadfruit is also a carbohydrate source.

Not too long in our distance past, native Hawaiians produced 100 percent of their dietary carbohydrate needs. Those needs primarily came from taro. It has been said that each person consumed seven to nine pounds of taro per day on the average.

If Michael Phelps, the golden U.S. Olympic swimmer, got the 12,000 calories per day he needs to swim by consuming, just for breakfast, three fried egg sandwiches loaded with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise, followed with two cups of coffee, five egg omelets, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar and three chocolate chip pancakes, it is conceivable that native Hawaiians consumed seven to nine pounds to perform their daily activities to survive.

At that consumption rate, it would require 1.5 taro plants per day, or 550 plants per year. That’s the equivalent of 2,555 to 3,300 pounds of taro per person per year.

Enough numbers, you do the rest in figuring out how much taro was required to feed the population of Hawaii of our distance past. Even with our modern sciences and technologies today, we don’t even come close to that production level in Hawaii. Not even with rice. This is something we need to think about collectively as island dwellers when talking about food security for Hawaii and our need for dietary carbohydrate.

In order to produce that much carbohydrate, native Hawaiians developed advance land management and agriculture systems. We still see some of those systems in upper kula lands and in river valleys. They also developed and grew many taro varieties, some that were adapted to specific land districts and ahupua’a of the islands. Since taro plants don’t produce seeds readily like corn or mango, ancient growers needed to be pretty smart to develop new varieties. It is still a mystery as to how the varieties came to be. Some believe that it happened by accident or by nature’s plant mutation, and others believed that there were a few who understood the art of producing viable taro seeds. They had taro varieties reserved for the Ali’i, ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. At one time, there were more than 300 varieties grown on our islands. Today we have less than 70.

The Cooperative Extension Service will be holding their Annual Taro Variety Field Day on Saturday, Sept. 6 starting at 9 a.m. More than 60 of the rarest native Hawaiian taro varieties will be displayed. There will be discussions on the taro varieties and on how to grow them.

There will be a limited amount of planting materials, huli, of Hawaiian taro varieties for you to take home to grow and contribute towards perpetuating our native Hawaiian taro. If you wish to take planting materials, please come in your field attire because taro sap will permanently stain your clothes, and bring your digging and cutting tools, labels, marking pens, ties and a container.

Alton S. Arakaki is an extension agent with the county.

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