You may have heard the moʻolelo (story) of Hāloa – the stillborn child of Wākea and Ho‘ohōkūkalani who was buried in the soil and watered by the tears of his mother until a green sprout appeared.
As an expansive, heart-shaped leaf grew towards the sky, the first kalo (taro) plant took form. When Ho‘ohōkūkalani gave birth to a second son, she named him Hāloa in honor of his older brother. Hāloa (everlasting breath) was the first human.
As Hāloa grew older and had a family of his own, he continued to care for his older brother and developed a familial relationship, with the kalo plant nourishing his ʻohana in return. For Native Hawaiians, this reciprocal relationship with the kalo plant continues to this day.
Since ancient times and through the present day, kalo has remained the primary dietary staple for Hawaiians. It is also used for medicine and as an offering to the akua (deities) as a kino lau (supernatural body) of Kāne, the creator.
There are two farming methods for kalo: wetland and dryland.
Wetland kalo takes great skill and engineering to establish.
“Ancient Hawaiians developed a sophisticated gravity-fed irrigation system based on the fundamental principle of working with nature and its natural forces, instead of against it,” writes Brittany P. Anderson in “The Past is Present: Kalo Farming on Hawaiʻi Island.”
Anderson describes how Native Hawaiians built loʻi (wetland kalo fields) next to fresh water sources with loose rock walls constructed around them, so that water could flow in and out. The cool, fresh water ensures the kalo corms do not rot, but instead stay fully hydrated and constantly replenished with nutrients.
A one-acre loʻi can produce three to five tons of kalo per year. During the harvesting process, the huli (cuttings) are replanted by plunging them back down into the muddy water. Eventually keiki plants grow around it creating an ʻohana. By continuing this process over and over again a loʻi can produce kalo for a lifetime.
Dryland kalo is planted into dry soil that is rich in nutrients and in areas that receive ample rain, and grows like other underground root vegetables such as onions, carrots and beets.
Kalo as Food
Every part of the kalo plant is edible once cooked. Poi, traditionally eaten daily, is made by steaming the corm and pounding it on a wooden board with water until it forms a dough-like paste.
It is customary to serve poi or steamed kalo at Hawaiian meals. A variety of protocols are associated with eating poi. Perhaps most famously, once a poi bowl is uncovered all arguments or negative discussions must cease because the poi symbolizes the presence of Kāne, the creator.
Native Hawaiians also make laulau by wrapping kalo leaves, fish and pork in ti leaves and steaming them until soft. Kalo is also used to create a sweet dessert called kūlolo by steaming a combination of raw, grated kalo corm, sugar and coconut milk wrapped in ti leaves. Importantly, kalo is non-allergenic and can be safely consumed by people with most food allergies.
Kalo as Medicine
Native Hawaiians also used kalo for medicinal purposes. Poi, which contains healthy probiotics, is known to settle and strengthen the stomach. In “Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaiʻi” by Lynton Dove White, it is described as being applied topically for boils when mixed with ripe noni fruit and used as a poultice on infected sores.
Kalo stems were used on the skin to treat insect stings and stop a cut from bleeding, while stems mashed with sea salt were used to treat infections.
Kalo stems were also used traditionally to dye kapa (bark cloth) and diluted poi was used to glue pieces of kapa together for clothing.
Kalo the Canoe Plant
There is a second origin story of kalo in Hawaiʻi tells of our Polynesian ancestors bringing kalo across the Pacific Ocean in their canoes. Thanks to the islands' abundance of freshwater, Hawaiʻi is one of the few island groups where people developed expertise in wetland cultivation and kalo became the preferred staple food.
Either way you believe kalo got here, Native Hawaiians feel a deeply rooted kuleana (responsibility) to care and honor for the kalo plant as they would an older sibling.
After Western contact in 1778, kalo acreage decreased from about 35,000 acres to 310 acres according to The New York Times. In the 1800s as the Hawaiian population experienced rapid decline from diseases brought by colonial settlers and visitors, so did kalo, causing the loss of hundreds of varieties. Theft of freshwater by sugar plantations also diverted streams and rivers from the valleys where kalo was traditionally grown, robbing Hawaiian farmers of their only water source.
There are still farmers who carry on the kalo farming tradition today as stewards of the ʻāina to sustain culture and food security while honoring their roots.
You can help continue the legacy of kalo by incorporating more of it into your diet, supporting your community by volunteering your time in a loʻi or mālaʻai, and growing it in your own backyard.