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., kō 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 kō 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, kō 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 kō. 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 kō 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 kō 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 kō 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 kō. The varietal names may have the word kō placed in front of them, but more often than not kō is dropped. References will therefore refer to Kea, Kō Kea and Kōkea interchangeably. Kō 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 kō 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 kō 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 kō to conception indicates usage in ceremonies encouraging pregnancy, and also may be why kō has a role in marriage ceremonies elsewhere in the Pacific. The many powerful definitions of kō, 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 kō 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 kō. 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, kō, and kī. 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 , 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 kō, mai‘a, and kī, 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 kō 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, kī, 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 pā, 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  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 , 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. Kō 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 kō 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  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 kō. 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 kō 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 kō - "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 kō 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 kō 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 kō elevates the soil moisture maintained throughout the day by reducing evaporation.
In māla agriculture, kō 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, kō 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 kō 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 kō 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.
 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).
 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.
 Wākea is a progenitor of the Hawaiian people, and is regarded both as a man and a deity in different mo‘olelo.
 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.