In ancient Hawai`i, taro played a much larger role beyond dietary staple. At the economic, political and spiritual center of Hawaiian agricultural society, the taro plant and its history grew to mythological proportions.
So important was taro for Hawaiians' survival and prosperity that it was considered an elder sibling to the Hawaiian race. In tales of taro's origins, it is the stillborn first child of Wakea, the sky father, and his daughter Ho`ohokukalani (daughter to Papa, the earth mother). This child was buried near the house and grew into a taro plant they named Haloanaka, or long stalk trembling. The second son born to Wakea and Ho`ohokukalani took human form and was named Haloa after his elder brother. From this Haloa the human race descended. Thus Hawaiians as a people understood themselves to be closely related to taro.
Hawaiians preferred taro over sweet potato as the mainstay of their diet, although taro required more time and labor to grow and was limited to better soils and locations with abundant water. As a food, taro was more versatile. Once cooked and pounded into pa`i `ai, it would keep almost indefinitely. In addition to being a starch food, taro was also taken as medicine and used in ritual. Within the community, it was the men only who cultivated taro and prepared it for eating, as they prepared all food for the family.
Taro farming developed into a sophisticated system in Hawai`i. Hawaiian planters cultivated approximately 300 varieties of taro in ancient times, most of them distinguished by colors in different parts of the leaf and adapted to specific growing conditions and locales. Hawaiians grew both wet and dryland varieties, depending on a district's conditions and climate.
Wet taro planting required a ready source of water, generally a naturally-flowing stream that could be diverted to flow through the taro terraces or lo`i. Ground selected for a new lo`i was first cleared of grass and weeds and allowed to absorb the nutrients from rotting hau and kukui branches and leaves that were worked into the damp soil. Lo`i boundaries followed natural land contours. The selected area was flooded for several days after which men with `o`o sticks threw mud from inside the new lo`i up along the proposed border, forming an embankment. Once they hit firm soil and the banks were built up, they stamped down the embankment sides with their feet. Lines were straightened and more leaves – sugar cane and coconut leaves – were beaten into the surface. More layers of fine soil and leaves prevented the new banks from drying and cracking. If the embankment walls were high, they were reinforced with a stone retaining wall.
The terrace floor also needed to be made water tight. The lo`i was filled with water and women and children joined the men in stamping down the bottom surface. The next day, taro cuttings, called huli, were planted in the soft mud and the field was flooded. Once the taro plants' first two leaves unfurled, the lo`i was drained and left alone for two weeks. The terrace was then flooded again, the slowly circulating water remaining high until the crop was pulled for harvest. The taro roots, or corms, reached maturity when the leaves began to curl and yellow, but they could be left in the flooded lo`i for months longer without rotting.
Depending on a variety of conditions, taro matured in nine to 12 months. Farmers rarely harvested a whole lo`i at once, instead pulling only what was needed. The roots were worked free from the mud by hand and foot and the plant was pulled out by hand. On the bank, the leaves were chopped off and the corm cut from the huli – the top portion of the corm could then be replanted. Old leaves were returned to the lo`i as fertilizer.
Dryland taro was planted in areas that lacked a major water source, most often in upper elevation forest clearings, fern forests or unforested lands. Planting in drier areas was done at the start of the rainy season. Cuttings were placed in holes nine inches or so deep and left uncovered until they began to root. The holes were then filled with earth. Once the taro leaves began to unfurl, the field was covered with a mulch of fern, ti, ginger and banana leaves. Harvesting followed the same procedure as in the lo`i.