Waves of Flickering Taro Leaves
By Alton S. Arakaki, County Extension Agent
In 1895, Katherine Lee Bates wrote the famous words “for amber waves of grain” in the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” I didn’t know what the words meant until my teacher pointed to the thousands of acres of sugarcane and I watched the countless wave-like action of leaves as the wind move across the field. In this live classroom, he concluded that the mainland kids would never identify with words “for green waves of sugarcane” if Katherine Bates had used them instead.
These same kinds of words were written in the journals of early sailors and missionaries arriving in Hawaii, to describe the fields of kalo or taro, ko (sugarcane), uala or sweet potato, and mai`a (banana) they observed as they sailed the coast and walked from one island district — ahupua`a — to the next throughout Hawaii. They called it “waves of flickering taro leaves.” The flickering comes from the twisting of the taro leaves in the wind to alternately display the darker colors of the upper surface then the lighter under sides. We can only imagine what early observers saw of Native Hawaiian “gardens” and “plantations” when they described the wind-wave movements of taro leaves, about 1000 years after the original Polynesian voyagers landed here.
By the time of western contact, Native Hawaiians had developed a sustainable production system that deliver 100 percent of their food supply — about 2.1 million pounds of food everyday to feed their population. Today, we produce about 10 percent of our food supply, or pound for pound producing less than the periods of early western contact. With our recent close encounter with hurricanes, we all need to think about the “waves of flickering taro leaves” that were once seen on our still geographically isolated islands. Even after hurricanes, like Iniki in 1992, root crops like taro and sweet potato will survive and be harvestable.
Native Hawaiian’s keen understanding of plants can be seen in the 300 taro varieties developed to suit the many growing micro climates in Hawaii. Taro does not produce fertile seeds readily, thus their achievements in developing varieties are testament to their expertise. By 1939, there were less than 80 identifiable varieties. Today we have less than 70. We don’t know which varieties arrived with the first voyagers, but we do know that if someone didn’t replant and care for them each year they would not have survived nature’s contest in “survival of the fittest.”
On Saturday, Sept. 19, the Molokai Taro Variety Field Day will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Molokai Demonstration Farm. You will learn from experts about the taro varieties and growing them, participate in taro tasting, The Queen Challenge, Kalo Cooking Contest, enjoy kupuna singing and cut your own taro varieties to help perpetuate them in your gardens. Contact the UH Cooperative Extension Service at 567-6929. Kalo Cooking Contest entry form can also be obtained at UHMC-Farm and Sust`aina ble Molokai offices.