Nearly a millennium before Europeans explored the Pacific, Native Hawaiians had already introduced sugarcane to the islands. In fact, they cultivated kō extensively in many ecosystems, using diverse agricultural systems and developing dozens of native varieties.
When Europeans first arrived, there were amazed at the hundreds and hundreds of varieties of sugarcane they came across, and their first major extraction from Hawaiʻi were its highly productive sugarcane varieties to power the sugar colonies.
These native and heirloom kō, along with detailed varietal descriptions of cultivars held in collections today, are covered in Kō: An Ethnobotanical Guide to Hawaiian Sugarcane Cultivars.
The book represents a decade of fieldwork and historical research by professor Noa Lincoln, Dept. of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences. With more than 370 color photos, Kō includes the ethnobotany in Hawaiian culture, outlining its uses for food, medicine, cultural practices, and ways of knowing.
“They look like giant candy canes; they really grabbed my attention!” says Noa. “You can see why early explorers called them the ‘Noble Canes.’”
Noa adds, “Heirloom crops are often heralded as being tastier and more nutritious than our modern varieties. This is because breeding often focuses on uniformity, disease resistance, packability, and other traits. But as we breed for specific traits, we often lose others. Sugarcanes are no different, with the soft flesh of our heirloom Hawaiian canes being sweeter and juicier than modern hybrids.”