Wākea and Papa, sky-father and earth-mother, who by the ʻOpūkahonua lineage were half-brother and half-sister, were said to be the parents of islands, Hawaiʻi and Maui (and later Kauaʻi, Niʻihau, Lehua, and Kaʻula – the rest were added later.) According to tradition, their first human offspring was a daughter, Hoʻohōkūkalani (to generate stars in the sky.)
Wākea seduced his daughter, Hoʻohōkūkalani. Their first child was born prematurely; they named him Hāloa-naka (quivering long stalk.) They buried him in the earth and from that spot grew the first kalo (taro) plant. The second child, named Hāloa in honor of his elder brother, was the first Hawaiian Aliʻi Nui and became the ancestor of all the Hawaiian people.
Thus kalo, which was the main staple of the people of old, is also the older brother of the Hawaiian race.
Traditions on the island of Oʻahu provide the names of a dynasty of ruling chiefs including Mā’ilikūkahi, around 1500 (about the time Columbus crossed the Atlantic.) Māʻilikūkahi is said to have enacted a code of laws in which theft from the people by chiefs was forbidden.
A son of Mā’ilikūkahi was Kalona-nui, who in turn had a son called Kalamakua. Kalamakua is said to have been responsible for developing large taro gardens in what was once a vast area of wet-taro cultivation on Oʻahu: the Waikiki-Kapahulu-Mōʻiliʻili-Mānoa area. The extensive pond fields were irrigated by water drawn from the Mānoa and Pālolo Valley streams and large springs in the area.
Other chiefs mentioned in Oʻahu traditions were associated with organizing activities in more systematic ways than those in times previous to them; one such high chief was Kākuhihewa.
Another great chief of Oʻahu, Kualiʻi, was famous for the kolowalu law: “If a man says, ‘I am hungry for food’ feed (him) with food, lest he hungers and claims his rights by swearing the kolowalu law by his mouth, whereby that food becomes free, so that the owner thereof must observe the law faithfully.”
In pre-contact (prior to Captain Cook) times, kalo played a vital role in Hawaiian culture. It was not only the Hawaiians’ staple food, but the cultivation of kalo was at the very core of Hawaiian culture and identity.
The early Hawaiians probably planted kalo in marshes near the mouths of rivers. Over years of progressive expansion of kalo lo‘i (flooded taro patches) up slopes and along rivers, kalo cultivation in Hawai‘i reached a unique level of engineering and sustainable sophistication.
Hawaiians knew the productive advantages of growing wetland taro and placed the greater effort in this area very early, when required to increase food production capabilities for the rapidly increasing number of people. By the time of Captain Cook’s visits in 1778 and 1779, every large river valley in the islands contained many loʻi (pond fields,) and each was systematically irrigated by means of ditches delivering water to the fields spread throughout the valley.
Usually, water was fed into an irrigation ditch from a stream. A loose-rock dam built across the stream allowed water to flow between and over the top of the rocks to provide for farmers living downstream. The dam functioned to raise the water level just high enough at that point to permit water to flow into the ditch leading to the terraces.
In this way the amount and speed of the water could be controlled. If too much water was found to be flowing into the ditch, a few stones could be removed from the dam, thus lowering the water level and reducing the volume of water entering the ditch.
The speed of the flow of water into the pondfields was controlled by the length and slope of the ditch. By varying the length and grade of the ditch, its builders were able to maintain a constant and low-level gradient over variegated terrain. The flow through the pond fields was controlled by the height of the terraces.
Kalo lo‘i systems are typically a set of adjoining terraces that are typically reinforced with stone walls and soil berms. Wetland taro thrives on flooded conditions, and cool, circulating water is optimal for taro growth, thus a system may include one or more ʻauwai (irrigation ditches) to divert water into and out of the planting area. (McElroy)
The ʻauwai construction and maintenance formed foundations around which an entire economy, class system and culture functioned. The ʻauwai, lo‘i and the taro plant’s mythical and spiritual connections in Hawaiian society influenced individual and social activity within the ahupua‘a. (Handy, HART)
The different representatives in the ahupuaʻa taking part in the work furnished men according to the number of kalo growers on each land. (The quantity of water awarded to irrigate the loʻi was according to the number of workers and the amount of work put into the building of the ʻauwai.)
David Malo explained how a taro garden could keep a large number of people in vegetable food continuously: “Some farmers did not plant a great deal at a time. They would plant a little, and after waiting a few months, they planted more land. So they continued to plant a little at a time during the months suitable for planting. The food did not all ripen at once, and by this plan the supply was kept up for a long time and they had no lack of food.”
On the question of the productivity of wet-land taro versus dry-land taro, some missionaries recorded their experiences and observations in 1847 and 1848. They helped answer the question: What number of people could be fed by one acre of land, of average quality in the district, if cultivated for kalo?
Rev. Armstrong suggested that there would be ‘food enough for ten persons’ on an acre of average taro land in Honolulu, that is, subsistence for ten persons. “With proper management, kalo (taro) land needs no rest. So the natives tell me. Let the water be kept constantly upon it and the weeds cleared out and that is all that is needed. The kalo plants, however, must be changed every crop. It requires about a year to bring a crop of kalo to maturity.” (Armstrong)
Rev. Johnson of Hanalei, Kauaʻi, a noted wetland taro-producing valley, suggested that 25 people subsist on an acre of good taro land.
Writing from his experiences on the well-watered windward side of Oʻahu, Rev. Parker wrote: “An acre of kalo land would furnish food for from twenty to thirty persons, if properly taken care of. It will produce crops for a great many years in succession, without lying fallow any time.”
Rev. Bishop, writing from ʻEwa District on Oʻahu, suggested that 15-20 people could be fed from an acre of taro: “Good kalo land, irrigated by water, improves by cultivation. It only requires time enough between crops to rot the weeds, which serve as manure.”
Rev. Emerson lived and worked in Waialua District on Oʻahu where several large rivers and numerous springs watered the land.
He wrote: “Twenty persons, I think can be fed on an acre of good kalo land. The land can generally be cultivated perpetually, if it has two or three months between each crop, in which to decompose the weeds which might grow during the time the kalo was ripening.”
“I have a large kalo patch that has not been left to rest one month at a time for fifteen years, and yet it produces as largely as fifteen years since. I presume the same parch was cultivated centuries before I knew it. It requires one year for kalo to come to maturity.”
In 6 to 12-months, depending upon plant variety along with soil and water conditions, the taro is generally ready to harvest. Each parent tuber produces from two to 15 ʻohā, side tubers of corms, up to 6 inches in diameter.
The Hawaiian concept of family, ‘ohana, is derived from the word ‘ohā (Fig., offspring, youngsters,) the axillary shoots of kalo that sprout from the main corm, the makua (parent.) Huli, cut from the tops of mauka and ‘ohā are then used for replanting to regenerate the cycle of kalo production.
Taro or Kalo has been a traditional form of food sustenance and nutrition, particularly in ancient Hawaiian culture. Reportedly, it is the world’s fourteenth most-consumed vegetable. All parts of the plant are eaten, including poi, table taro (the cooked corm,) taro chips and luau leaf.
The foregoing information (primarily from Marion Kelly and Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa (with some help from some others to fill some gaps)) helps answer some of the When, Why, Where and How Much questions related to wetland taro farming.
The 22nd Annual East Maui Taro Festival is being held May 3-4, 2014.
The image shows kalo (Markell.) In addition, I have included more related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.