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The Sugarcane Plant

The Sugarcane Plant

Hawaiian Terminology

Hawaiian Terminology

Hawaiian Agriculture

Hawaiian Agriculture



  • Introduction
  • The Sugarcane Plant
  • Hawaiian Terminology
  • Hawaiian Agriculture
  • References

Sugarcane is the single most important crop in the colonial history of Hawai‘i. Trade agreements around sugar resulted in the establishment of the first US military base in Hawai‘i – the infamous Pearl Harbor. The need for sugarcane labor powered the immigration that gives Hawai‘i its multicultural background today, and the influence of the early plantations formed the basis of our labor laws. Sugar’s demand for water fueled the construction of elaborate canals, the emptying of rivers, and the development of the most exclusive water rights in the nation. The conversion of vast areas of land used for sugar production erased extensive natural and cultural histories. The greed for profits from sugarcane was an influential driver of the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, followed by territorialism and, eventually, statehood.

The overwhelming impact of the sugarcane plantations in Hawai‘i tends to overshadow the fact that Native Hawaiians introduced sugarcane to the Islands nearly a millennium before Europeans arrived; that Hawaiians cultivated sugarcane extensively in a broad range of ecosystems using diverse agricultural systems; that dozens of native varieties of kō were developed; and that sugarcane played a vital role in the culture and livelihood of Native Hawaiians, as it did for many other indigenous peoples across the Pacific.

Hawaiian mahi‘ai were among the most adept farmers in the Pacific, sustaining cultivation for hundreds of years across an impressive range of soils and climates. Even a basic understanding of the indigenous planting and horticulture gives reason to respect the extensive knowledge developed and encoded into traditional practices. One of the many areas Hawaiian agriculturalists excelled in was the systematic differentiation, identification, and naming of their crop varieties. These varieties were, and are still, utilized in ways that enhance the resilience, production, and practicality of agriculture.

Contemporarily, there is a revived interest in indigenous crops and cropping systems. In light of growing environmental and social issues associated with conventional agriculture, many people are acknowledging the multiple benefits derived from traditional, diversified farming. These crops and cultivation systems are not only important as a cultural resource and a link to the past but may play a critical role in future food systems. Modern agriculture relies heavily on inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery for production. More and more research demonstrates that this form of farming minimizes the services provided by ecosystems, has significant adverse effects on environmental health and global climate, and increases vulnerability to natural and social disasters. Because modern crops have been bred to operate within these industrialized systems, they have lost many of the traits that allow them to excel in diversified systems. If the world is to embrace more resilient farming that utilizes fewer inputs and greater diversity, then heirloom varieties - such as - will be needed in developing new crops that will thrive in diversified, place-specific agricultural systems.

The Sugarcane Plant

Sugarcane is one of the largest members of the grass (Poaceae) family, second only to members of the bamboo group. It is a perennial plant found throughout tropical and sub-tropical areas, preferring environments that are warm and wet but tolerating a range of habitats.

Several species of the genus Saccharum make up the sugarcane group. Two of the species, S. spontaneum and S. robustum, are considered wild. These two naturally occurring species of sugarcane are considerably different. S. spontaneum looks very grass-like with skinny stalks and lots of slender leaves. On the other hand, S. robustum looks much like the sugarcane most people envision, except bigger. Preferring to grow in wet or boggy areas, the thick, well-defined stalks of this species can reach 10 meters in length!


Kingdom Plantae
Subkindom Tracheobionta
Superdivision Spermatophyta
Division Magnoliophtyta
Class Liliopsida
Subclass Commelinidae
Order Cyperales
Family Poaceae
Subfamily Panicoideae
Tribe Andropogoneae
Genus Saccarum

[Table 1 – Scientific Classification of Sugarcane]


S. spontaneum is much more widespread than its cousin. It occurs in a band that stretches from northern Africa to Papua New Guinea, with large native habitats throughout the Middle East, India, China, and Malaysia. S. spontaneum is believed to have originated in India, which is the geographic center of its natural range and where varieties with the smallest number of chromosomes occur. In contrast, S. robustum is only indigenous to Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands, possibly including the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesian, and Malaysia (there is debate regarding how much of this range may have been caused by human distribution). 

The domestication and crossing of the two wild species, possibly with other closely related genera, has given rise to new cultivated species. Sugarcane genetics are very complicated, with plants having a variable number of chromosomes and being polyploidy (having extra sets of chromosomes). Thus, there is no consensus yet as to how many species there are (see Bonnett and Henry (2011) for a good overview of differing opinions). Most sources will tell you there are four cultivated species of sugarcane: S. officinarum, S. barberi, S. sinense, and S. edule. Of these groupings, S. barberi and S. sinense have been grown in northern India since prehistoric times, and are thought to be intergeneric hybrids between Saccharum and other genera. S. officinarum and S. edule are both thought to be derived from S. robustum.

Within these species, there are hundreds of cultivars and countless commercial hybrids that farmers and breeders have developed. As new varieties were established, the superior ones were cherished, traded, and passed on to form a unique horticultural diversity in each location. Through millennia of cultivation, humans have developed thousands of varieties that exhibit different qualities such as sugar content, disease and pest resistance, environmental tolerance, and maturity time. More recently, modern breeding programs have crossed and back-crossed different Saccharum species so many times that many commercial hybrids could not be called any one species.

Among the heirloom varieties, cultivars of S. officinarum stand alone as the most impressive. Varieties of S. officinarum are often called the "Noble Canes" because of their thick stalks, bright colors, and regal stature in comparison to the generally less striking varieties of the other species. Furthermore, the sugar content of S. officinarum is much higher than any of the other species. These are the cane varieties that were cherished spoils of war in ancient times, that powered the colonial sugar industry, and whose lineage is embedded in commercial hybrids today.



[Fig 1. Map showing the distribution of the Noble Canes, from USDA Agricultural Handbook #122.]


S. officinarum originated in the Indonesian/New Guinea area, where the highest diversity of Noble Canes is found. It is still unclear if S. officinarum is a result of hybridization, or if it evolved from the selection of sweet forms of S. robustum, but either way, it is intimately linked with humans as a purely cultivated species not found in the wild. Regardless of its origins, the Noble Canes represented a highly productive crop that tolerates a wide range of habitats; accordingly, it spread rapidly and became an important crop everywhere it could be grown. Experts place the origin of S. officinarum around 8000 B.C., with the first outmigration from Papua New Guinea to neighboring areas shortly after. The high sugar content and soft flesh of these canes led to another affectionate name, the Chewing Canes; the most popular way to extract the sugar was simply to chew on a stalk and suck out the juice!


Brief Description of Saccharum officinarum

S. officinarum exhibits a high weight per cane, high sugar content, low fiber, and high purity of juice. The plant consists of a root clump supporting several straight, typically unbranched, stalks. Stalks are long and skinny, ranging from 2 to 8 meters in height but only 2 to 8 centimeters in width. These shoots emerge upright but often lean as they grow, and may fall over and continue to grow prostrate along the ground.

Distinct and often exotic colors paint the stalks and are typically the first characteristic noticed when observing a Noble Cane. There are the Ribbon or Banded Canes, named for their brightly colored stripes reminiscent of a giant candy cane. In contrast, the Solid Canes are not striped, but the name is misleading as multiple, mottled colors may still be present. All sugarcane are glazed with a waxy coating, called the bloom, which can be virtually non-existent or so thick as to obscure the actual color behind a frosty facade. A rigid skin, or rind, protects the soft interior filled with a spongy tissue, known as the pith. Conspicuous nodes occur every 2 to 30 centimeters along the stalk where the alternating leaves attach. A narrow band of wax, 1 to 2 centimeters wide, occurs just below the leaf scar, while root eyes and shoot buds can be found just above it.


Sugarcane Plant Parts


Several long, linear leaves that are 0.5 to 2 meters in length and 2 to 20 centimeters wide are supported near the tip of each stalk. The upper and lower surfaces are generally smooth but, like all grasses, have serrated edges that irritate the skin and can even cause cuts. The foliage is typically a shade of green, but may be tinged with yellow, blue, red, or purple, or be variegated with white, pink, or green striping. Some varieties shed their dead leaves on the lower part of the stalk, while others maintain them to hang down like a long grass skirt.

Sugarcane takes approximately two years (though as little as ten months) from planting before it begins to flower. Flowering occurs in the late fall or early winter, typically between November and January in Hawai‘i. The 0.3 to 1 meter inflorescence, commonly called a tassel, is held aloft over the plant on an erect stem up to 2 meters long. The individual flowers vary in color from slightly rosy to lavender and fade to white or silver as they seed. While the flowers are perfect, having both male and female parts, each flower varies in the amount of pollen it makes, from virtually none (a "female" flower) to a lot (a "male" flower). Although S. officinarum can self-pollinate, many Noble Cane varieties are primarily sterile and rarely form viable seeds (though they can be fertile, especially at warmer temperatures). Because many of the Noble Canes produce very little or no seed, many of the varieties arose through somatic or bud mutations: any stalk emerging from a  clump may be a new, mutant variety. If propagated by cutting, these mutant stalks will grow true to form. Frequently Banded varieties give rise to Solid mutants, and vice-versa.

Sugarcane prefers high sunlight, temperature, water, and nutrient levels; while it can survive in colder or drier climates, it will not thrive. Most sugarcane plantations achieved the best production by irrigating naturally dry areas that were hot and sunny, providing the best of both worlds. In right conditions, sugarcane yields the highest number of calories per unit area of any cultivated plant, capable of producing over 20 tons of sucrose per hectare. The average yield of cane stalk is 60–70 tons per hectare; however, this figure can vary between 30 and 160 tons per hectare depending on the area, knowledge, and crop management.


The Spread of Sugar

The earliest known visual record of crystallized sugar is approximately 5,000 years ago from the Indus Valley Civilization, and the earliest written records date back over 2,500 years to the Gupta dynasty in India. In 510 BC soldiers of a Persian emperor, Darius the Great, were near the river Indus when they discovered some "reeds which produce honey without bees." Alexander the Great of Greece, while leading his army westward, recorded an instance of crystallized sugar during their conquest of India in 326 BC, followed closely by Nearchus, who mentions sugarcane in western India in 325 BC. Descriptions of sugar production are also nearly 2,000 years old. In the 1st century AD, Dioscorides depicts "a honey called sakkharon collected from reeds in India and Arabia, with the consistency of salt and which could be crunched between the teeth."

It is questionable whether these early descriptions of sugar and sugarcane refer to S. officinarum that had migrated out of Papua New Guinea or to S. spontaneum, the cane species native to India and the surrounding regions. The use of the word “reeds” in the descriptions seem to indicate S. spontaneum. However, the sugarcane that was a central part of the flourishing culture on the island of New Guinea for thousands of years was certainly S. officinarum. Here, the Papuan people cultivated sugarcane extensively in a variety of agricultural settings and transformed the growing of sugarcane into an art form. Papuans would build large scaffoldings to maintain their sugarcane stalks, which were "taller than five men." Individual sugarcane varieties were so prized and protected in the indigenous Papuan culture they were considered one of the esteemed spoils of war when conquering an opposing tribe and used for tribute or exchange in political interactions.

From New Guinea, the Noble Canes were spread around the world to both the east and the west. A single variety of S. officinarum, commonly known as 'Creole,' is known to have reached Persia by the 6th century AD. The Arabs were then responsible for its spread into Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, and Crete in the 7th century. Sugarcane finally reached Europe through Spain around 714 AD, where sugar became one of the best-documented products of the Middle Ages. By the middle of the 12th century, southern Europe cultivated some 30,000 ha of sugarcane. 

Starting in the 1400's, Europeans spread sugar around the world during their imperial colonization. Initial regions include the Madeira Islands, the Canary Islands, West Africa, the Dominican Republic, and the Americas. By the end of the 1500's significant sugarcane production was occurring in Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and other Antilles Islands. Until the establishment of these sugar-based colonies in tropical regions, sugar was a luxury item in Europe and Asia; exports from these overseas plantations made sugar a household condiment to the western culture.

There is no written record conveying the migration of sugarcane westward from New Guinea, but oral histories provide rich documentation. Sugarcane was an important agricultural crop that accompanied the Oceanic people in their exploration of the Pacific Ocean. The settlement of the extremely remote Pacific Islands is one of the notable accomplishments of humankind. The expansion into Oceania, commencing about 1200 BC, led ultimately to the settlement of the vast eastern Pacific, from Samoa to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and from Hawai‘i to Aotearoa (New Zealand). The Polynesian peoples located and colonized hundreds of islands, including Samoa, Tonga, the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, the Marquesas, the Austral Islands, the Cook Islands, and other small island groups, concluding with the discovery of New Zealand circa 1200 AD.

With people came essential plants and animals needed to establish new settlements. The Polynesians were master voyagers and had perfected the skills not only of sailing and navigation but also the transport of plants and animals aboard their seafaring outriggers. As the Polynesians moved through subsequent islands, the carried fewer and fewer plants with them because only a portion of the plants and people who initially settled, adapted, and developed progeny on each island moved on (or were transported) to the next. In particular, there was a reduction of plants propagated by seeds, which were vulnerable during the long, open-ocean voyages. By the time settlers reached Hawai‘i, their agricultural introductions mainly consisted of plants that are vegetatively propagated, such as by tubers, root suckers, or cuttings. Great care was needed to protect the plants from rotting, dehydration, and salt toxicity. For instance, root suckers were "wrapped in well-rotted coconut husk fiber …the whole thing…wrapped in dried leaves…then a…basket woven around the entire[ty]." Hardier than many of the other plants on the voyage, sugarcane was likely always among the first wave of plants introduced to newly settled islands. The agricultural cornucopia in most all the Polynesian Islands included sugarcane, except for New Zealand (too cold) and some of the very low-lying islands or atolls.

The process of island hopping played an essential role in defining the horticultural assortment, with systematically less genetic diversity arriving at each successive settlement. Envisioning this process is easy. When departing an island only a few select varieties could be taken along, with fewer still successfully established on a new island home. The surviving varieties would be cultivated and diversified over time, and when departing many generations later, again only a sliver of the genetic diversity could be selected for transportation. This process produced a strong genetic drift by repeatedly constricting the gene pool. Return voyages, multiple colonizations, and trading with other island groups complicate the story, but the basic concept remains true. Although not for sugarcane, the examination of other crops' genetics, such as breadfruit and paper mulberry, have illustrated this process. As one of the endpoints in the Pacific settlement, the crop genetics that reached Hawai‘i represent an apex of this process.

When Europeans finally reached the Pacific through their westward exploration, they noted the incredible diversity of sugarcane within and between island groups. Many varieties were collected and returned to the sugar colonies of the New World. Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Hawai‘i, and Tahiti were all important sources of extraction. The influx of new varieties significantly increased productivity in the New World plantations compared to the 'Creole' cane on which they were founded. The most successful varieties were spread far and wide and incorporated into plantations across the world. A prime example is the 'Otaheiti' variety from Tahiti, which spread through Brazil and the Caribbean, and eventually made it all the way back to Europe, where it was popularly known as 'Bourbon.' 'Otaheiti' was the first foreign sugarcane cultivar introduced to Hawai‘i, but instead of being imported from nearby Tahiti, it came through Europe, Louisiana, and Panama in global trade before reaching the archipelago.

Today, sugarcane is still a major global crop, not only used for sugar but also ethanol production. Sugarcane grows between 30 degrees south, in Australia and Argentina, and 37 degrees north, in Spain. Brazil produces some 40% of the world's sugar, while many of the colonial era plantations, including those in Hawai‘i, have discontinued production.



Wai kō – Sugar juice

Pulapula – Piece of stalk used for planting

‘Aina kō – Fibers, pith

Okaoka kō – Fine broken particles of fiber

Mū‘okole – The cane after blooming

Māla kō – A field of cane

Lālani kō – A row of growing cane

Pae kō / Kō a palena  – Cane bordering a taro patch

A‘a kō – Root

Huluhulu – Rootlet

Mu‘o kō – Leaf shoot

Kumu kō – Stalk

Puna kō – Internode

Puna pekepeke – Short internode

Puna loloa – Long internode

‘Ēlau – Top piece of stalk adjoining the leaves

Pu‘upu‘u – Root eyes at the node

Maka kō – Bud

Hā kō – Leaf sheath, midrib

Heu – Bristly hairs on leaves and sheath

Lau – Green leaf

Lā‘ō – Dry leaf

Ōpū kō – a clump of cane

Kīlepalepa kō – Tassel

Pua kō – Individual flower

Kō ‘aina – The waste of the sugarcane, particularly the fibrous bagasse left over after eating


Sugarcane In Ancient Hawai‘i

The Hawaiian archipelago is unique among the Pacific islands. It is the only significant island group north of the equator, has the only peaks higher than 4,000 meters, and is the only islands that have current and constant volcanic activity. The substrate ages ranging from fresh lava rock to 5 million years and vast gradients of rainfall and temperature create a broad range of soils and habitats that represent virtually every arable climate found on earth: from desert to rainforest and from coastal to alpine. As the Hawaiians colonized and cultivated this diverse landscape, they adapted their agriculture to created unique farming methods. Over time, new crop varieties developed that excelled in different environments and cropping systems. Hawaiian farmers distinguished upwards of 50 sugarcane cultivars that differed in their appearance, usage, and environmental tolerance. Some varieties thrived in arid dunes, some in marshy areas, and some in higher, colder elevations. Some were renowned for their striking colors and others for their taste.


When Hawai‘i was settled by the Polynesians, likely in the 10th Century A.D., was one of only ~23 plants that were eventually introduced to form the basis of their agriculture. Transported in the form of stem cuttings, which is the preferred method for propagation, and protected during the long voyage, sugarcane would proliferate quickly in the Hawaiian environment. 

Whether sugarcane traveled on the initial settling voyage or whether subsequent trips were made to gather the desired plant is unclear. Handy et al. (1972) argue that the association of with the god Kāne, the first of the four primary deities to come to Hawai‘i, is indicative that it arrived with the first group to settle the Islands. In support of this theory, appears very early on in the Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo, second only to kalo among the crops:


O kane, ia Wai‘ololi, o ka wahine ia Wai‘olola

Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream

Hanau ke Ko‘ele‘ele noho i kai

Born was the Ko‘ele seaweed living in the sea

Kia‘i ia e ke ko Punapuna, ko ‘ele‘ele, noho i uka

Guarded by the long-jointed sugarcane, the kō ‘ele‘ele, living on land

He po uhe‘e i ka wawa

Darkness slips into light

He nuku, he wai ka ‘ai a ka la‘au

Earth and water are the food of the plant
O ke Akua ke komo, ‘a‘oe komo kanaka

The god enters, man cannot enter


The Kumuhonua, an ancient chant that records the traditions of kahuna hāhā (medicinal healers who diagnosed by touch and feel), also references . The third line of the chant invokes the plant:


He ko kumu, he ko lau, oo no

A cane stalk, a cane leaf, mature


Several of the following stanzas apply a pattern of invoking Lono and referencing ‘Kea,' the principal medicinal sugarcane variety:


He one kea ke one, he ko kea ke ko,

The sand (land) is white, the cane is kea

He ko wai Lono, ka la e Lono

            Sugar cane juice, oh Lono, the daylight, oh Lono

Wekea e Lono, puha e Lono,

Beginning to break, oh Lono, bursting open, oh Lono

O Hawaii ka moku e Lono.

Hawai‘i the island, oh Lono


While later stanzas call upon other well-known varieties of kō:


He kala hale ke one, he maoheohe ke ko

The land is plaited, the cane is Maoheohe

He awawa ke one, he paapaa ke ko

The land is furrowed, the cane is Paapaa

He moana ke one, he palani ke ko.

The land is expansive, the cane is Palani


The importance of in Hawaiian society indicates that it was a prized crop, and if it did not make the colonizing voyage, it would soon have been acquired. It is clear that Hawaiians made return voyages to south Pacific Islands, sometimes solely to obtain desired plants or animals. How many varieties of might have been introduced is also questionable. Genetic relationships seem to indicate five to eight closely related groups of canes (depending on where one draws the line defining "closely related"). It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that these distinct groupings originated from bud mutations alone. Therefore, these groupings may indicate an equal number of initial introductions. However, sugarcane does produce small amounts of viable seeds, and the groups could also result from a single introduction followed by the occasional propagation from seed. Regardless of how many cultivars were introduced, it is clear that once they arrived Hawaiians developed new varieties unique to Hawai‘i. In his book Native Planters in Old Hawai‘i, Craighill Handy explains the process of creating and selecting new cultivars:


In the matter of shrewd observation of varieties and careful, conscious selection of mutants in the creation of subvarieties of their plants, the Hawaiians were truly experimental horticulturalists. New varieties are still consciously created by selecting sports from bud or slip mutation. A variant sport, growing as a banana or taro shoot, or from a potato slip, is termed keiki (child). If the mutant produces desirable food, or is liked for its color, leaf form, or vigor, it is replanted and given a name, generally that of a grower or locality; and if it is of real value, it will be shared with friends. Thus, presumably, have the hundreds of varieties of old Hawaiian taro and sweet potato, and the less numerous varieties of banana, sugar cane, and ‘awa, been originated (pg. 21).


Exceptional varieties spread across the archipelago through this process of sharing. That the different varieties were prized and collected is well illustrated in mo‘olelo (stories). The legend of Wailele o Komali‘u mentions that the ali‘i wahine Komali‘u traveled around the island of Kaua‘i and gathered different varieties of sugarcane for her people, including 'Pilimai' and 'Laukona.' As a variety was spread, it was occasionally renamed. In Hawaiian culture, names are significant and carry mana, or spiritual power. A cane's name may in itself contribute to its vigor, popularity, or powers. Changes in the names could occur for any number of reasons. Some of these reasons include inspiration (that is, a sign from the gods) or to honor individuals or memorialize a significant event. For instance, according to Fornander a commoner brought the cane '‘Ōhi‘a' to the chief Kiwala‘ō during a famous battle at Moku ‘Āweoweo, and Kiwala‘ō told the commoner that this cane should henceforth be known as '‘Āweoweo' to commemorate the battle and those who died. Additional names were invoked around special ceremonies. 'Halāli‘i' may be referred to as '‘Ailolo' when used in graduation ceremonies or as 'Ukuhala' when used in rituals asking forgiveness. It is not uncommon for Hawaiians to have multiple names for an object. Even people will often have a common name, a poetic name, and a secret name used only in exceptional circumstances. Plants, animals, and places were similar.

The extensive naming of plant varieties exemplifies the horticultural prowess of our ancestors. Over 80 unique Hawaiian names of are documented that represent at least 35, and upwards of 50, distinct types. These cultivars appear to be unique to Hawai‘i, developing from the original introductions during a millennium of cultivation. Careful observations of the sugarcanes and their mutations by W.W.G. Moir in the early 1900s suggested that there were at least 11 (and up to 15) "families" of sugarcanes. Each family represents 2 to 5 varieties of sugarcane, which are said to mutate into each other, and back again, quite commonly. Moir's groupings are presented in Appendix I.

While some of the varieties are strikingly different, others differ very subtly. 'Opukea,' for example, is reported to be "exactly like Kea but always dwarfed by it," while 'Honua‘ula' and 'Pāpa‘a' are said to be "distinguishable only by a small groove beneath the eye [on 'Honua‘ula']." Like many crops, detailed observations and descriptions are necessary to distinguish varieties.


Hawaiian Sugarcane Names

The word for sugarcane in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i is . The varietal names may have the word placed in front of them, but more often than not is dropped. References will therefore refer to Kea, Kō Kea and Kōkea interchangeably. has many meanings that relate to the cultural uses of sugarcane. Hawaiians greatly enjoy word play and utilize kaona (implied or hidden meanings) extensively. In some ways, it is merely a pun – a play on the multiple interpretations of a word – but holds much more significance in Hawaiian communication compared to many languages. The following definitions of are found in various Hawaiian dictionaries:


  • Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), a large unbranched grass brought to Hawai‘i by early Polynesians as a source of sugar and fiber.
  • Dragged, towed, wind-borne; long, as a vowel sound; drawl; to hold a note for several beats in singing or chanting.
  • To drag, push, prolong, tow; to drag, as with a rope; kauo, e huki; pull, tug, massage.
  • To fulfill, come to pass, succeed, do, complete, foreclose; to fulfill, as a threat; to be avenged. Kō ‘ole ‘ia, not done, accomplished; unsuccessful.
  • (Ho‘o) Executive; to carry out, as a contract; to enforce, execute, confirm, construe, interpret, decree; to award, as land; to probate, perform, satisfy; to transact, accomplish; to cause a conception; confirmation, award; to perform what has been spoken.
  • To obtain; to conquer; to overpower; to obtain what one has sought after; to succeed in a search. 
  • To put a law in force; e hooko i ke kanawai. That is, cause to fulfill the law.
  • To win in dispute; to win in a bet; olioli iho la ka poe i ko, so those who won in a race rejoiced; to prevail, as one party over another.
  • To conceive, as a female; to become pregnant; e hapai, e piha; fulfilled.
  • To proceed from, as a child from a parent; to beget, as a father.
  • To break up lumps in poi by pressing against the side of a container.
  • Second note in the musical scale, re.
  • A call to pigs, fowl. Also kolo, kolo, kolo.
  • Your (of one person; singular possessed object; replacing both kāu and kou, often with affectionate connotation….).
  • Of. The sign of possession or property, answering often to the apostrophic s in English, thus: ko na, of him, of her, of it, that is, his, hers or its (seldom however in the neuter); ko kakou, of us, that is, our, ours; ko lakou, of them, theirs, etc. It has the same meaning as o, but is placed in another part of the sentence. Ko is used also before nouns proper and common in the same way. Sometimes ko and o are both used; as, ko o nei poe kanaka, of, or what belongs to the people here or the o may be taken as a noun of place. Note idiomatic use with ā, as far as, plus a direction word: kō ā uka, those of the uplands; kō ā mua, those in the foreground; kō ā hope, those behind. Kō kākou, our…. Kō ia, of him, his, hers, its; belonging to him or her. Kō laila, of that place; belonging to that place, local.


Several associations and uses of sugarcane are embedded in these definitions. The definition of "wind-borne", for instance, can be evoked in a negative or derogatory way to imply a person on no commitment or consequence. The definitions referring to complete or foreclose are significant to the use of in the closing of many types of religious and medicinal ceremonies. The need for sugar for quick energy after these ceremonies, which are often long and involve fasting, is one possible reason for the relationship. The association with to conception indicates usage in ceremonies encouraging pregnancy, and also may be why has a role in marriage ceremonies elsewhere in the Pacific. The many powerful definitions of , including possession, completion, execution, probation, and so on indicate the importance and energy of the plant. Much could be implied by the simple act of gifting cane.

Most Hawaiian cane varieties share a name with reef fish or ocean flora; it seems likely that for those that do not, the relationship once existed but has been forgotten. These names represent relationships observed between the land and the sea. Often the link appears visual. The mottled pattern of red, green, and yellow on the ‘awela (Thalassoma fuscum) is the same as seen on the '‘Awela' cane. Other crops often share the names of varieties – particularly kalo, ‘uala, and mai‘a – that exhibit similar characteristics. The name 'Manini' is applied to several crops that all have white variegation on their stalks and leaves that resemble the manini, a small reef tang. Although appearing superficial, these relationships encode knowledge. The subtle variations in the habitat of the fish and the canes are said to vary together. 'Uahiapele' is a name applied to varieties of kalo and . Both have a dark smoky purple coloration, but both also grow well in cooler, upland climates – a shared trait that is not so obvious.


Agriculture in Ancient Hawai‘i

The Hawaiians were extraordinarily adept farmers, perhaps more so than any other Oceanic peoples. While many assume that the Hawaiians relied heavily on the ocean for their food, most descriptions of daily life in Hawai‘i indicate that the efforts of farming greatly exceeded those of fishing. As Craighill Handy writes in Native Planters in Old Hawai‘i:


For every fisherman’s house along the coast there were hundreds of homesteads of planters in the valleys and on the slopes and plains between the shore and the forest. The Hawaiians, more than any of the other Polynesians, were a people whose means of livelihood, whose work and interests, were centered around the cultivation of the soil. It was the practice of systematic agriculture more than anything else that produced qualities of character in the Hawaiian common people that differed markedly from those of other Polynesians.


The Hawaiians devised and utilized new ways of planting that differed from those found elsewhere in Polynesia driven, at least in part, by the vastly different environment of Hawai‘i. Before reaching the fertile volcanic slopes of Hawai‘i, the settlers had a long legacy of inhabiting smaller, more-ancient islands less capable of supporting vast, intensive agriculture. As Hawaiians became increasingly knowledgeable about their new home, they developed farming practices uniquely suited to the different environments. Just as Hawai‘i has perhaps the densest concentration of different habitats and ecosystems, so do the Hawaiians have a dense diversity of farming practices and techniques.

The most salient division of agriculture in Hawai‘i is lo‘i (wetland) and māla (dryland) agriculture. While the wet/dry division is an oversimplification, even Hawaiian agriculturalists recognized this delineation, as illustrated by a 19th-century native farmer's statement that, "Elua ano a ka aina, he maloo a he wai - There are two kinds of lands, there are dry and there are wet."

Wetland agriculture refers irrigated or inundated farming plots and has similar forms elsewhere in Polynesia. Most commonly, lo‘i consist of flooded gardens in lowland river valleys. Here surface water was directed through a series of terraces. Early European observers, such as King (1784), emphasize the quality of these systems on Kaua‘i:


…these plantations were divided by deep and regular ditches; the fences were made with a neatness approaching elegance, and the roads through them would have done credit to any European engineer…


Eventually, moderate slopes of every river valley and flat lowland plains were converted into highly productive terraces. Many testimonies capture the vast alteration of these valley landscapes for agriculture, such as these remarks from Lydgate (1912) describing Wainiha, Kauai:


All…along the river, wherever the encroaching [steep mountain slopes] on either side leave the least available space, the land has been terraced and walled up…so the whole valley is a slowly ascending stairway of steps, broad in the tread and low in the rise, all the way to [the back of the valley], where the last available space was won.


An essential aspect of lo‘i was the ‘auwai – canals that transferred water from the river through the pondfields and back. ‘Auwai were often simple channels of compacted earth, but more elaborate systems were paved with well-fitted stones and even used carved wooden conduits to pass over short expanses. Some ‘auwai were reported to be upwards of 3 km long. The sides were sloped inwards to prevent erosion and often lined with plantings to stabilize the soil. At critical junctures were keystones that could be used to adjust, or eliminate, the flow of water. The po‘o wai (lit. headwater) refers to the diversion point. Here the water would be slowed by mānowai – constructions that allowed for sufficient water pooling while employing mechanisms to prevent excess flow during high water events. For instance, stone dams were built to raise the water level for adequate intake; these dams were constructed so that during flood events they would break away, lowering the water level and preventing the ‘auwai from being washed out. A detailed observation of one lo‘i in Wailau, Molokai illustrates some the precise engineering:


There’s a stone wall edging…four feet wide, level with the terraces…but nine feet high on the side facing…below. Also, there were large pohaku (stones), standing like sentinels…in the middle of a terrace…at seemingly random locations…and stonework that gave the odd impression of short walls abruptly left unfinished.  [After a terrific storm]…the purpose of the stonework was seen…all had been engineered to break the force of water, gently move[ing it] through the system of cleared terraces with such perfection that it was not even discolored. Not a speck of soil was washed out, not a single plant uprooted, and not a single stone dislodged from its place…


Once diverted from the river, water flowed through several lo‘i, passing from one to the next via small connections known as makawai (lit. water eye). Finally, the water was invariably returned to the river or allowed to seep into the ground. ‘Auwai embodied multiple aspects of the communal values that permeated Hawaiian society. Their construction and maintenance required socially organized labor; if a family did not contribute to the building or maintenance of an ‘auwai, they risked being excluded from its usage. Similarly, a system of locks allowed for control of water to individual series of terraces; during times of drought, the water was managed so that all users, despite their downstream location, were given a fair share of water as determined by their contribution to the system. The close relationship between the words wai (water) and waiwai (wealth) exemplifies the Hawaiians' recognition of water's supreme importance for personal and social wellbeing.


While wetland agriculture is generalized in the system outlined above, there existed a range of forms and styles. In intermittent streams, stone barrages built within the stream bed were used to create simple lo‘i systems. In coastal areas where springs created near-shore pools an adaptation known as loko wai was used, where slightly brackish water was used to grow both kalo and fish together. In steep areas, cuts were made into the slope to access the groundwater table and create small lo‘i. Lowland flats, where the water table approached the surface, formed permanently inundated areas. These swampy areas that never dried out, known as ‘āina wai, were extensively transformed into highly productive pondfield systems. Here, rather than build up terraces and ‘auwai, shallow pondfields and connecting canals were dug into the earth to enhance the pooling and flow of water.


The principal crop grown in all wetland agriculture is kalo, while along the banks or around a lo‘i, other plants were cultivated, often mai‘a, , and . The investment into lo‘i construction was considerable and often a cooperative social venture, but the return was significantly reduced maintenance and increased yields. The flowing water inhibited weeds, kept the plants adequately watered, and delivered a constant source of nutrients. The surrounding crops not only benefitted from the irrigation and provided more diversified production, but also helped to stabilize the banks and maintain the integrity of the pondfields. 

Māla, or rainfed, agriculture occurred in a range of habitats from the ocean up to approximately 2,500 feet in elevation. While wetland agriculture can be somewhat generalized as a cropping system based on kalo, rainfed cultivation utilized a broader range of techniques, practices, and cropping assemblages. While some forms of dryland agriculture, such as agroforestry systems, are found elsewhere in the Pacific, others are uniquely Hawaiian. The methods of cultivation were adjusted to every circumstance of climate, altitude, weather, substrate, and exposure. Despite lacking draft animals or metal, Hawaiian agriculture is highly advanced, relying on ingenuity and knowledge intensity to create productive systems sustained for several hundred years. The first Europeans to visit the Islands made it clear that they were deeply impressed with the expertise shown by the Hawaiians in manipulating their crops, the meticulous care they took of plantations, the intensity of agricultural development, and the significant bounty brought forth from the land.

The most intensive form of rainfed agriculture were vast systems that can be characterized by relatively uniform infrastructure. The dominant surface features were long walls or embankments referred to as kuaiwi [1], literally meaning "backbone." The name is significant, referring not only to the walls' appearance on the landscape but also to their critical role in supporting Hawaiian society. The kuaiwi, made of earth or stone or both, were typically one to two meters wide and one-half to one meter high; they could extend continuously, in a kinked manner, for over a kilometer. The kuaiwi were spaced to encompass cleared fields, typically twelve to twenty meters wide, though as narrow as eight and as wide as sixty meters. Generally, the walls were planted with taller secondary crops such as , mai‘a, and , while the cleared fields between them were used to cultivate the primary crops of ‘uala and kalo. Archibald Menzies, one of the first European botanists to view Hawai‘i, describes the perfection of one such system:


For several miles round us there was not a spot that would admit of it but what was with great labor and industry cleared of the loose stones and planted with esculent roots or some useful vegetable or other. […] As we advanced beyond the bread-fruit plantations, the country became more and more fertile, being in a high state of cultivation...seeing now these upper regions so industriously cultivated and teeming with productive crops, we could no longer remain ignorant of their vast resources…they thus avail themselves of Nature’s bounty in the conformation of their country by extending their cultivation to different regions of the air, they secure a continued succession of crops and therefore can never be destitute of supply. […] Every step we advanced through these plantations became more and more interesting as we could not help admiring the manner in which the little fields on both sides of us were laid out to the greatest advantage and the perseverance and great attention of the natives in adapting every vegetable they cultivate as far as lays in their power, its proper soil and natural situation by which their fields in general are productive of good crops that far exceed in point of perfection the produce of any civilized country within the tropics.


The perfection of these systems is even more impressive when considering their extent and intensity. T.S. Newman, one of the first archeologists to study the dryland systems, states “the Kona field system is without equal in Hawaii, and probably the nation, in terms of prehistoric modifications to the land…comparable in terms of complexity and size to the well-known field systems of Central and South America.” That Hawaiians built continental-scale agriculture on small islands in the Pacific is an achievement that cannot be overstated. The expansion of rainfed agriculture coincides with the late crop introduction of ‘uala, and possibly ipu. Both crops are associated with Lono, one of the four supreme deities whose principal affiliation is to rain and clouds – critical for non-irrigated agriculture. Lono's arrival is placed after the time of Kāne and Kanaloa, suggesting a later arrive for these crops.


The younger islands primarily support the intensive dryland systems, with extensive development occurring in Kohala, Waimea, Kona, and Ka‘u on Hawai‘i Island, Kula and Kaupo on Maui Island, and Kalaupapa on Moloka‘i Island. In each area adaptations to the local environment were made. For instance, in Kohala, Hawai‘i, where the prevailing trade winds are exceptionally strong and mist-laden, the kuaiwi run perpendicular to the slope and the winds. Here the walls functioned as a windbreak and mist trap to concentrate water resources and improve productivity. In contrast, the walls in Kona, Hawai‘i are parallel to both slope and wind; the author believes this facilitates the management of solar radiation and evaporation (the walls run on a WSW orientation, aligning with the sunset in the winter while providing shade to the fields during the summer). While the infrastructure is similar among the field systems, the application and purpose of the infrastructure appear unique at each location.

The dense concentration of diverse micro-habitats in Hawai‘i necessitated different types of cropping systems and temporal uses of dryland areas. The ecology of dryland agriculture is variable due to the wide range of elevation, temperature, rainfall, wind speed, and soil nutrients encompassed by these systems. Hawaiians exploited each of these zones according to their social needs and the ecological requirements of their crops. In Kona, Hawai‘i, well-defined bands of planting occupied the mountain slope. Each zone consisted of different assemblages and techniques. Traveling upslope, these zones in Kona were:


  • kula – dry lowland plains used primarily for resource crops such as hala (Pandanus tectorius), pili (Heteropogon contortus) and ipu (Lagenaria siceraria),
  • kalu‘ulu – an arboricultural system with a canopy of breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) and kukui (Aleurites moluccanus) and diverse understory including ‘awa (Piper methysticum), mai‘a (Musa spp.), and wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera),
  • ‘āpa‘a – dense concentration of kuaiwi infrastructure where kalo and ‘uala grew in cleared fields with kō, mai‘a, and kī grown along the walls, and
  • ‘ama‘u – modified native forest in which crops such as mai‘a and uhi (Dioscorea alata) and native resource plants such as mamaki (Pipturus albidus) and olonā (Touchardia latifolia) grew under an ‘ōhi‘a (Metrosideros polymorpha) canopy.


In contrast, the māla system in Kohala did not use these same planting zones, but was instead temporally segregated, in which a single cropping system based on ‘uala and dominated the region, but lower, drier area produced during the wetter, colder winters, and higher areas during the drier, warmer summers.

As seen throughout much of Polynesia, arboriculture played a significant role in Hawaiian agriculture. Many of the introduced crops do well in forest conditions, including ‘ulu, noni, kukui, wauke, ‘ōhi‘a ‘ai, niu, ‘awa, mai‘a, ‘awapuhi, , uhi, hoi, and hala. Endemic plants used for resources and medicine, such as mamaki and olonā, also thrive. Diversified arboriculture was particularly prevalent in areas that were too steep, too rocky, too infertile, or too salty for kalo and ‘uala production, and was therefore common on colluvial slopes, areas with very young soils, near the coast, and in older or wetter areas that were relatively infertile. The valley walls provide an example of places that were often too infertile or steep to support intensive rainfed agriculture. If fertile, colluvial soils were sometimes worked to form rudimentary terraces, but more often were established with semi-wild tree and shrub plantings that would provide resources, seasonal products, and unmanaged reserves against disasters. The planting of breadfruit, in particular, on the valley slopes is evidenced by dozens of historical and pre-historical references, as well as remnant plantings visible today. These valley plantings accounted for the bulk of the agricultural production in some areas and was a key component to resilience and production throughout the islands. In some regions, it is clear that Hawaiians planted trees specifically to accumulate fertility. In these systems, known as , fast-growing woody plants that decomposed quickly such as kukui, hau, and hala were cultivated. The trees provided resource products for several years, after which they were cut down and composted to support multiple years of kalo cultivation. Hawaiians also made use of the enhanced fertility of natural forests for various forms of agriculture. Maps of homesteads submitted at the time of the Māhele [2] show multiple variations of this. Often areas of ‘ōhi‘a, the dominant canopy tree in most native Hawaiian environments, were maintained with dense understory plantings of useful ferns and shrubs. This practice capitalized on increased nutrient cycles associated with forests, and increase moisture due to cloud and mist interception. Specific methods appear to be regional, utilizing crops and infrastructure as the local environment required. For instance, in Hana, hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) was planted in the uplands to choke out plants in preparation for agroforestry, but in Puna, hau was grown as mulch for composting their planting pits.


Over time, increasingly marginal areas were cultivated out of necessity. In some cases, most notably in Kaupō, Maui and Kona, Hawai‘i, vast areas were utilized that scarcely seem able to have supported agriculture. Here, alternative methods were used such as soil capture or creation. Swales were commonly used to concentrate water and soil resources. These were often simple dams constructed in highly intermittent streams or u-shaped enclosures that captured water-borne or wind-blown dust. Where the use of soil capture techniques was not an option, Hawaiian farmers created soil. Pocket agriculture was the process of leveraging natural formations or simple human-made infrastructure to deposit soil and other organic and inorganic amendments into "pockets." Natural "blisters," or air pockets in the lava, were particularly useful for this technique because their thick sides kept the soil cool and their low porosity helped to preserve water. The types of plants grown in pocket agriculture varied depending on the specific local conditions. This method was well-known for the production of ‘uala and ipu – both species are vines that would root in the pockets of dirt and crawl out across the surrounding rocks. A large area of spaced pockets could form a contiguous patch of gourds that grew together, effectively bringing the entire area into cultivation despite having only a small percentage of land with adequate soil.


Similarly, rock mounds played were common in soil-scarce or dry regions. While mounds were also used extensively in fertile areas, their application was much more widespread in marginal habitats. Several acres could be blanketed in heaps of stones approximately 1 meter in diameter, which increases yields primarily by helping to preserve moisture and regulate heat. The rock piles enclosed soil or organic matter and were planted mainly with ‘uala. Ellis, in his 1820 tour of Hawai‘i Island presents:


We thought the people generally industrious; for in several less fertile parts of the district we saw small pieces of lava thrown up in heaps, and potato vines growing very well in the midst of them, though we could scarcely perceive a particle of soil.


The diversity of techniques used by Hawaiian farmers allowed them to cultivate a wide range of habitats across the islands successfully. Cropping systems, agricultural infrastructure, planting methods, timing, and management were all adjusted according to the local climate and the macro- and micro-topography. Often planting styles could be found in proximity to each other, making the most of available resources.

Hawaiians thoroughly intertwined their agriculture and religious beliefs. These beliefs govern everything in Hawaiian culture, including relationships to land, water, plants, and animals. The kalo provides a prime example. Kalo emerged in association with Wākea [3], known in deity form as the sky-father. The stillborn child of Wākea and his daughter was buried behind their house, from which emerged the first kalo plant; Wākea had many other children, from whom stem the Hawaiian people. Kalo is, therefore, the elder sibling of the Hawaiian people, and this endows upon it a paramount place from the perspective of familial relationships. The elder sibling is to be respected, while it is his responsibility to care for the younger relatives. Thus, a central value of the Hawaiian people is expressed through agriculture – kinship with our environment, to the same degree as kinship amongst a family, both of which require reciprocity and respect to function properly.


Environmental cycles played an essential role in Hawaiian agriculture. Hawaiians adhered to a lunar calendar that designated certain days as kapu (forbidden) for planting due to religious observances. The kapu days are also the days said to be worst for planting, illustrating the intertwining of religion and agricultural knowledge. The annual calendar was not strict in the Julian sense but depended on appropriate environmental factors. For instance, the Makahiki (holiday period of peace and planting) commenced with the observation of the Makali‘i star constellation (the Pleiades) at sunset, an indicator that is affected by weather patterns and shifts in onset from year to year. This relationship between the environment, religion, and daily practice was a core foundation of agronomy in Hawai‘i. 

Many practices were local in their development, derived from the diverse environmental habitats and patterns. The Makahiki holiday, for instance, evolved around the māla. These dryland systems are dependent on winter storms essential for planting. When the rains came, communities needed to mobilize for planting quickly. Lo‘i agriculture, which has a steady supply of fresh water and does not require the quick labor response, is very different. In Kaua‘i, where most of the farming was lo‘i, the fishing seasons dictated much of the religious observances and planting schedules. While this is a large-scale example, there are countless examples of small, local customs and beliefs that adapted the religious and agricultural practices. The diversity of traditions across the archipelago makes it difficult, dangerous, and disrespectful to generalize Hawaiian agriculture.


Hawaiian Sugarcane Farming

Ancient Hawaiians grew sugarcane using different methods that reflected the opportunities and limitations of the various growing climates. could be found growing lushly along the banks of lo‘i with mai‘a and other moisture-loving crops, where they played a role in stabilizing the banks and shading the water in ‘auwai to keep it cool; in backyard gardens where the canes were meticulously manicured and cared for; in māla where they formed thick hedges extending for several miles, acting as windbreaks or shade hedges; in the harsh conditions of young lava flows where they were grown in excavated pits, heavily mulched; in boggy lowlands where they might even persist in brackish waters; and in other conditions. An article in Ke Au Okoa from 1869 exemplifies these diverse growing conditions:


Kō grows on pretty much every type of land, and there's hardly anywhere it does not grow. Kō keʻokeʻo grows well on arid lands, on ridges that have no water, and in the mountains. The varieties kō ʻula, kō lahi, and opukea do not grow well on arid lands. Kō ʻula and kō ʻōniʻoniʻo are famed for being planted in gardens (kīhāpai). Kō was planted in kīhāpai kanu ʻuala, kanu kalo maloʻo, kīhāpai kanu wauke, and kuāuna loʻi kalo. Kō was planted on the borders/banks of the kīhāpai so that the plants in the middle would be dignified (hanohano).


In Hawai‘i, sugarcane grows best near sea level but will grow well up to about 2,500 feet on the leeward side. While the methods of planting and care differed with the location and type of farming, there are many commonalities about Hawaiian farming of that are related here. Sugarcane propagation is done using pulapula, or sections of cut stalk referred to as setts or seed-pieces in English. Setts are typically 18 inches long and contain several nodes, where both the roots and the shoots originate. Hawaiians consider the selection of vigorous stock material to be of the utmost importance. The best seed-pieces are taken from the ‘ēlau (top portion of the stalk) of immature canes 8 to 12 months old. Here the buds are younger, healthier, and less likely to dry out. Often buds on the lower portion are already dead and will not sprout, while buds from the ‘ēlau will sprout and grow much faster. That the upper portion of the stalk makes for the best pulapula is also convenient because it is the part of the cane with the least amount of sugar and so not as valued for food. The Ke Ao Okoa article above continues:


The way it was planted was a person would go out and get a bunch of kō, bring it back to the house and cut it into forearm-length (ha‘ilima) portions, and mālama the knuckles (‘ōpu‘upu‘u) because that is where it grows from. Really smooth kō will not grow, the kō ‘ōpu’upu’u will grow quickly. July and August are the months that are good for planting because when the kō flowers/clumps (i ka wa pua o ke ko), the shoots grow vigorously. When planting, dig a hole until the dirt is soft and mixed, and then put down two stalks, then cover with dirt. When the shoots pop up, weed and make mounds (pu‘e).


Setts are planted at a 45-degree angle and lightly covered with soil. A careful farmer will dig a large hole and mulch it with compost and topsoil before planting, but in fertile areas, seed-pieces can be pushed into the bare ground. Care should be taken to plant the seed piece facing upright so that the buds are above the node. Planting the pulapula at an angle is said to yield better over the long run and to firmly anchor the plant so that the stalks will grow more erect and be less prone to falling over. The seed pieces can be expected to sprout within two to three weeks when kept moist. The sharp buds can push through several inches of soil, but it is best to gently cover the seed pieces then to continually mulch and heap soil as the sprouts emerge until a pu‘u (mound) exists over the entire planting.


Sugarcane can be planted on two different time schedules. One is seasonal, with planting governed by the onset of the local rainy season, providing maximum water to the young plant, which grows best when kept wet. In ancient times some kahuna made their fame in advising the proper time to plant by observing the weather patterns and using divination to predict the timing of the rains. Two main times are best for planting: the months [4] of ‘Iki‘iki and Ka‘aona, which correspond to May/June/July, and the months of ‘Ikuwā and Welehu, which correspond to September/November/December. Which of these times depends upon whether the grower is on the windward or leeward side of the island. For windward areas with abundant moisture, the early summer will offer luxurious growth with the summer sun; for leeward regions that are typically very dry in the summer, planting in the fall at the onset of the southerly winter storms will give the plant the best head start before the dry summer arrives. However, there are always exceptions to the rules! Kona, for instance, is a leeward area with plenty of summer moisture, making May/June an excellent time to plant.

The second schedule used by Hawaiian farmers is the lunar calendar; each phase of the moon correlates to a particular type of growth. For instance, Hua (the 13th day of the lunar calendar, the waning three-quarter moon) means fruit, and plantings on this day will bear abundant fruit, but they will be small. Mahealani (the 16th day, the third full moon) is a good day for planting all crops, while the days called ‘Ole, meaning unproductive (the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd days) are a terrible time for planting anything. For sugarcane, the night of Akua (the 14th day, the first full moon) is the very best and will yield considerable growth of stalks and leaves. The three days dedicated to Kanaloa, known as Kaloa (the 24th, 25th and 26th days, the waning quarter moon), are also exceptional for sugarcane as the plants will grow long joints, be sweet, and make quality medicines. Muku (the 30th day, the new moon) is also a good night for . The days dedicated to Kū (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th days, the waning crescent moons) are considered weak for sugarcane, for they will be upright and tall but spindly and thin. If planted at the right times, sugarcane grown in the right conditions can be producing mature stalks in as little as ten months.


Clumps of sugarcane are best planted 2 to 3 meters apart, so each clump can be individually managed to reap the sweetest cane possible. The spacing allows for the sun to reach the entire plant better, which cycles more water and increases the amount of sugar. Traditionally leaves were stripped as they first began to yellow, but today most people will wait until the leaves are entirely senesced before removing and mulching them. The ground around the cane should be continuously mulched, both to conserve moisture and to provide nutrients. Sugarcane has been shown to harbor many beneficial bacteria; mulching the leaves back around the canes enriches the soil with these bacteria. Stalks that are spindly or have very short joints should be removed immediately. These stalks do not produce good juice, and are a waste of effort by the plant; removing them will focus growth on the healthier stalks. The shoots should not be mulched near the plantings as they can increase disease transmission and also may sprout a new clump where it is not wanted.

Clumps of sugarcane are pū‘ā (tied up together) to prevent stalks from leaning too far or falling over. An upright stem produces sweeter and purer juice than a fallen one. Gravity pulls the heavy sugars down, concentrating the sweetness in the lower half of an erect shoot; in a leaning stalk the sugars are diluted, making the juice impure and bitter. Clumps can be tied up once they are a few feet tall, typically around six months old. As the cane grows, soil should continue to be mounded around the base to provided additional stability. This whole tending process is called "momona ke kō," or "fattening of the cane." For small-scale production, stalks are best harvested individually as they mature or as they are needed. Always harvest before flowering or lodging; the plant will burn its sugar to produce a flower or shoots, reducing the sweetness of the juice.

A clump of sugarcane can grow for decades, but each year the crop will weaken. The first crop, nowadays called the plant crop, produces the fattest and sweetest growth. Successive crops, known as ratoon crops, make more stalks that mature quicker but are slightly smaller and less sugary. Therefore, it is good practice to replant every 5 to 12 years. Inter-planting different cultivars provide multiple benefits. Each cultivar thrives under different environmental conditions; planting several varieties provides a buffer against weather variability. Similarly, each cultivar exhibits varying degrees of disease and pest resistance; a diverse planting reduces the chance of devastating outbreaks. Finally, each cultivar differs in its patterns of maturity and ratooning; multiple varieties will spread out the harvest season and the need to replant. 

In ancient rainfed systems, sugarcane appears to have been grown in large quantities – at first glance even in excess supply. This sentiment is captured in ethnohistorical descriptions of rainfed field systems, and with an ‘ōlelo no‘eau that depicts the kuaiwi walls dense with - "I ‘ike ‘ia no o Kohala i ka pae kō - One can recognize Kohala by her rows of sugarcane." We suggest that sugarcane played an integral part of the cropping systems – that is, Hawaiians may have established so much sugarcane because it allowed them to grow staple crops bigger, better, or more consistently.

In Kohala, for example, restoration of lines of along the kuaiwi have demonstrated how the cane functions as windbreaks, disrupting the fierce tradewinds and capturing mist from the moisture-laden air. The rows of decrease wind to the lee, protecting crops from physical damage and lowering evapotranspiration. We have frequently observed leaf-wetting, whether morning dew in sugarcane inter-canopy or interception of wind-blown mist or rain on the leaves and stalks. Days of light mist that would barely touch the ground instead turn into a constant drip of water droplets off the tips of the sugarcane leaves. In Kona, where wind and mist are not typical, the tall sugarcane planted on and along the kuaiwi provide morning and afternoon shade to the crops in the fields. Preliminary measurements over time show that elevates the soil moisture maintained throughout the day by reducing evaporation.


In māla agriculture, was a vital source of mulch, as observed by early Europeans who noted "a thick layer of hay" covering the fields, as well as captured in traditional sayings such as "kahilipulu Kohala na ka makani - Kohala is swept, mulch and all, by the wind." Robust examination of mulching rates in Kona indicates an optimal level of mulch to increase soil moisture consistently. Below the optimal level, soil moisture increases as the mulch guards against evaporation; above the optimal level, soil moisture declines rapidly as excessive mulch prevents precipitation from ever reaching the soil. 

In addition to increasing plant available moisture, sugarcane helps manage nutrient cycles, affecting nutrient inputs, storage, and redistribution. During the decomposition of sugarcane leaves and pressed stalks, high levels of asymbiotic nitrogen fixation occur; to date, this is the most substantial source of nitrogen identified in traditional Hawaiian māla. This is in addition to the nutrients in the mulch itself. Traditional practice is that sugarcane leaves were stripped from the plant and mulched at "the first signs of yellowing," which equates to a peak nutrient concentration in the leaves. Through detailed knowledge and practices, leaves acted as a natural fertilizer in māla, accumulating nutrients from the kuaiwi walls and transferring it to the fields of kalo and ‘uala.


The traditional Hawaiian methods for growing cane were productive. In addition to cultivating in a wide variety of environments, there is evidence that yields were high and growth was exceptional. A description stemming from Captain Cook's boat Discovery in 1778 states, "the sugarcanes of the islands grow to an extraordinary size. One of them was brought to us at Atooi (Kaua‘i) whose circumference was eleven inches and a quarter, and it had fourteen feet eatable." From Ka Nupepa Kuokoa in 1866, a contributor nonchalantly testifies, "we saw Pua‘ole...that was grown at Halaaniani...that was 21 feet."


Disease and Pests

Sugarcane can become diseased or infested, more so today than in the past because of the introduced diseases and pests. In the past, when an infected plant was identified, the whole plant was destroyed. Fire was used to sterilize the soil and prevent the spread of the disease, or the area was abandoned for a couple of years to allow the virus to dissipate.

Two primary pests are prevalent in Hawai‘i today. The yellow sugarcane aphid (Sipha flava) is a small yellow insect that will cluster on the underside of the leaves near the midrib. They drain the plant of nutrients, causing the leaves to brown and die. These pests leave behind a honeydew deposit that often causes the growth of sooty mold fungi. Natural enemies to these pests, such as earwigs (Doru spp.), ladybugs (Diomus spp.), predacious ants, and young spiders can help to reduce populations. Although damage to leaves from the aphids can reach up to 50%, sugar yields from infested plants are not impacted heavily, only 5–10%. Borer insects, such as the lesser cornstalk borer (Elasmopalpus lignosellus) and the sugarcane borer (Diatraea saccharalis) are moth larva that may tunnel into the stems of sugarcane, causing loss of weight; in extreme cases, entire stalks can wilt and die. These pests can be an issue in the Hawaiian sugarcanes, which in general are soft fleshed. This pest is much more problematic in already unhealthy plants, but by replanting often and keeping clumps well cared for, the impacts are minimized


A range of diseases can affect sugarcane in Hawai‘i. Perhaps the most common is the Eyespot Disease, which is caused by a fungus (Bipolaris sacchari). The air-born spores land on the plant leaves and cause damage that starts as tiny brown spots but will grow into elliptical reddish-brown lesions and streaks. This disease will not kill a plant but does reduce yields, and unfortunately no efficient methods of control are known.  The rust disease of sugarcane is caused by Puccinia melanocephala. The earliest symptoms are small, elongated yellowish spots visible on both sides of the leaf, which eventually increase in size and turn red-brown to brown with a thin, pale halo around the lesions. When sever, numerous legions give the blade an overall rusty appearance. The spores of the rust fungus are transmitted by wind and water splash, and can be controlled by removing infected material and burning, and application of specific fungicides. Similarly, brown and orange sugarcane rust, caused by the fungus Puccinia spp., is moderately common, in Hawai‘i. The fungus is a prolific spore producer, and in dense plantings an infestation can spread quickly, causing losses of up to 20%. The best control is to use resistant varieties and to have well-ventilated plantings.  Yellow leaf syndrome, another common disease, can cause losses of yield up to 25%. The leaf midrib becoming bright yellow it is a clear indication. There are no known treatments, but aphids are the primary vector and therefore controlling pest populations can efficiently reduce spread. Also very common in Hawai‘i is the red rot disease, caused by the fungus Glomerella tucumanensis. Most people will notice the deep red contamination of the flesh during harvest. However, outward signs, such as deep red legions on the midrib or sheaths, are noticeable. In addition to causing reduced yields and quality of flesh, red rot can cause excessive lodging (bud sprouting prior to stalk maturity) and general decline of plant health. The spores rely heavily on water for transportation, and most of the disease transmission comes from the use of infected seed pieces. Smut disease, also caused by a fungus (Sporisorium scitamineum), can cause stunting and death. It is easily noticeable when new leaves emerge as withered black or grey growth. These stalks should be removed immediately when noticed, as a couple of months later the spores will be released and the disease can spread. While previously widespread, smut disease is rare today. Also uncommon is the sugarcane mosaic disease caused by a virus in the Potyviridae family. The mosaic disease tends to occur in sporadic outbreaks when conditions are favorable for the aphid vectors and susceptible varieties are grown, and can cause losses up to 30% in yields.


To combat diseases, using healthy, disinfected planting material is the first step. Keep your plants nourished so they are healthy and resistant, and prevent the introduction of disease by cleaning equipment and other materials. Use a range of cultivars to ensure increased resilience against pests, diseases, and environmental extremes. Keep plantings well spaced and ventilated, and control pest pressure to prevent the spread of diseases. Finally, observe your plants often and remove any infected or infested clumps.


[1] Several similar names describe the agricultural walls, including kuaiwi, kuamo‘o, kua‘āina, iwi‘āina, iwikuamo‘o, and mo‘o‘āina. All the terms evoke the meaning backbone or ridge, using the terms iwi (bones), kua (back), ‘āina (land), and mo‘o (ridge or narrow strip of land).

[2] The political act that ended the traditional land tenure system and established fee-simple land ownership. The Monarchy of Hawai‘i enacted the Māhele in 1848, with two follow up provisions that allowed for land claims to be submitted by Hawaiian nationals.

[3] Wākea is a progenitor of the Hawaiian people, and is regarded both as a man and a deity in different mo‘olelo.

[4] The names of months from Kona, Hawai‘i are used; different islands and regions often applied different names to the months that reflected their local annual weather.



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Authored by: Noa Kekuewa Lincoln.  
Please properly cite any use of information or graphics from this page. 

Lincoln, N. (2017) Description of Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. 
Retrieved from: http://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/cane