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Indigenous plants
Introduced plants
Domesticated animals
Growing seasons and weather knowledge
Farming methods and implements
Farming Sources

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Introduced plants

Of the plants Polynesian settlers brought with them, their favorites for cooking and eating were taro, sweet potato and breadfruit. Taro, or kalo, became the staple of the Hawaiian diet and the primary focus of agricultural activity.

Hawaiians invested more time and labor into growing taro than any other crop. They developed hundreds of varieties of taro, adapted to suit every type of terrain. To provide optimal growing conditions – ponds of slowly circulating water – Hawaiians engineered and built ditches that fed stream water to staggered terraces. Once harvested, taro was baked, eaten whole or pounded into a paste called pa`i `ai. In this form, it could be kept for an almost unlimited period of time. Water was added to pa`i `ai to create poi. Hawaiians also ate the taro leaves, similar to spinach when cooked.

Sweet potato (`uala), a starchy tuber, was substituted for taro in drier areas. Like taro, it was cooked and eaten whole or pounded to make a poi; the vine tips were eaten as greens.

The Islands' first settlers also brought breadfruit, though it did not become, in Hawai`i, the preferred dietary mainstay as in other parts of the South Pacific. Uhi, or yams, another starchy tuber, stored well but were too mealy to make into a palatable poi. The largest quantities in ancient times were grown on the island of Ni`ihau. Yams gained greater popularity as a crop once Western sea captains began provisioning in Hawai`i; their longevity was preferred over taro or sweet potato.

Settlers to the Islands also brought mai`a, or bananas. Ancient Hawaiians grew 35-70 different types of bananas, some to be eaten raw and some to be cooked. They brought sugar cane, or ko, which they planted in clumps, in rows, or as borders along taro fields. Sugar cane stalks were chewed for their sweetness. Sugar cane was one of the few concentrated natural sugars and the closest thing to candy in the traditional diet.

Ki or ti was also chewed (its root was cooked underground) as a sweet treat. Ti was left to grow wild or was planted near houses. The leaves had many uses: as cooking wrappers, plates, material for lei, capes, sandals and other things.

Pia, or arrowroot, was often planted along the wet banks of taro patches or in damp upland areas. Grown for its starch, mature tubers were grated then the flesh soaked in water until the starch settled out. It was used as a thickener in all types of puddings.

Polynesian settlers also brought non-food plants including gourds, wauke and turmeric, or `olena. Turmeric, like ti, was planted near houses. Although its underground stems were eaten during times of famine, Hawaiians used it primarily to produce a yellow dye. Wauke, the paper mulberry, was used to produce kapa, the Hawaiians' bark cloth.

Hawaiians grew a greater variety and larger number of gourds than were grown anywhere else and fashioned them into containers and musical instruments. They cut and fit two gourds together to make ipu, or percussion instruments. They used particular sizes and shapes to make `uli`uli rattles and whistles (hokiokio). Gourd containers held anything imaginable, from water to fishing line and hooks to food to kapa or feathers. Hawaiians also carved them into helmet masks.

 Sites for further information

Ethnobotany of the Ahupua`a (Kapi`olani Community College)

Meet the Plants (The National Tropical Botanical Garden)

Some History of Hawaii Agriculture

Some History of Hawaii Agriculture

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