Posted by Lauren Hertel on Wednesday, July 25 2012


Story by Alan D. McNarie

Photos by Joshua McCullough  

The great sugar cane plantations are a fading memory now in most of Hawai‘i. Only on Maui is cane still commercially cultivated. But those who’ve been in the Islands long enough can remember when the fields of light green cane stalks seemed to stretch forever across the central plains of O‘ahu and the mountainsides of the Big Island, and C&H ads touted “the only pure cane sugar from Hawaii” with images of smiling workers and delighted kids. Some remember the downsides, too: the ocean stained brown with topsoil along the Hamakua Coast, for instance, when a rainstorm struck after thousands of acres of cane had been harvested at once.

Now picture a different image, one that no one alive has seen but that lingers in the imaginations of a few. It’s the leeward side of the Big Island, four hundred or so years ago. Stretching up the mountainsides of Kohala and Hualalai and Mauna Loa is a sight even more impressive than those future seas of cane: a vast patchwork of fields edged by ridges of hand-piled rock, or kuaiwi. The fields contain a multitude of crops: kalo (taro) and sweet potatoes, breadfruit and bananas. Planted along the kuaiwi that edge them is ko, sugar cane. But this cane is not the uniform light green of twentieth-century field cane. Instead, ko offers a rainbow of colors, from a violet so dark it’s nearly black to red-purple, maroon, scarlet, pink, green, yellow and white. Looking up the mountain is like looking at an exquisite quilt, with different fields bordered by different hues. When Captain Cook stood on his ship’s deck in Kealakekua Bay and looked up, he must have marveled at a system far more vast and complex than anything he’d seen elsewhere in Polynesia.

Today the image of that Kona field system lives vividly in the imagination of Noa Kekuewa Lincoln. On a late afternoon at the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in South Kona, Lincoln is striding among the forty-four different cultivars of ko that he helped replant the year before. The planting was done in the traditional Kona drylands style, with kuaiwi on one side of the ko and rows of kalo on the other. Lincoln pauses beside a particularly vibrant clump of cane that has green-andwhite- striped leaves and stalks with stripes of pink, white and pale green. It’s called laukona, he says.

“This one is famous as the only one of the canes that was used to negate love spells,” he continues. Nearby he points out another ko, called manulele (flying bird); it’s dark reddish-purple with yellow stripes and green leaves. Manulele, he explains, was a cane that kahuna (priests) used to cast those love spells, known as hana aloha. Depending on the love desired, kahuna used differing ko: Manulele worked best for enchanting a physically distant or hard-to-approach person. Pilimai (come this way) was good for a quick fling. Papa‘a (hold fast) was the cane for cementing a long-term relationship. And the only antidote for any of them was to chew a properly enchanted piece of laukona.

It wasn’t just about love. Ko had many uses in traditional Hawaiian culture, Lincoln says. Various canes were seen to have medicinal value for everything from infected sores to childbirth. In dry, windy Kohala, cane stands served as mist traps and windbreaks that watered and protected more fragile crops such as kalo. Red and purple canes such as the honua‘ula of Maui were used for spiritual purposes. Some ko were less productive but more tolerant of drought; some were adapted to surviving specific environments such as the sand dunes of Ni‘ihau.

Slim, tanned and youthful, Lincoln doesn’t look like one of the Islands’ premier experts on sugar cane, but the Native Hawaiian ethnobotanist has worked hard at becoming just that. He grew up on Maui looking at those endless fields of monochromatic commercial cane. In 2004 he began a three-year stint as the education coordinator at Amy Greenwell and encountered ko in all its glory.

“When I started working at the garden, I really became enamored with the ko,” he recalls, “and I guess it just grew from there.” Lincoln left the garden to pursue his doctorate at Stanford University; he’s now finishing his dissertation on the Kona field system. He’s working simultaneously on a book titled Ko: An Ethnobotanical Guide to Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. It’s the first effort in eighty years to classify and catalog the surviving varieties of Hawaiian ko.

“There’s a collection [of ko cultivars] on almost every island,” says Lincoln, “but the canes are all kind of mixed up. People were calling different canes by the same name, and the same cane by different names.” He estimates that there are some fifty to sixty surviving cultivars descended from those that the Polynesians first brought to the Islands.

Complicating his task of identification is the fact that there is a plethora of more recently introduced varieties, some of which have been around long enough to acquire Hawaiian names. Lincoln pauses, for instance, beside a clump of “Buddha belly” cane, which is called hapai (pregnant) in Hawaiian. Both names derive from its unusual appearance: Each segment of the yellow-to-purple stalk is swollen in the middle.

“From the viewpoint of most characteristics, it’s not a good cane,” Lincoln observes. “It’s short, it’s skinny, it’s not that sugary. But it’s extremely attractive and unique.”

To be considered a true Hawaiian ko, the cultivar must be descended from the “canoe plants” that the ancient Hawaiians brought to the Islands. Hapai came later, from Papua New Guinea—which, ironically, is where the Polynesians likely first picked up cane during their movement across the Pacific. Archeological evidence, Lincoln notes, pushes sugar cane’s history with humans in Papua back to around 8,000 BC, making it one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants.

In the early 1900s, Lincoln’s forerunner, a botanist named W.W.G. Moir, journeyed around the Islands gathering local cane varieties and cane lore for the breeding program of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA). Canes from Moir’s collection eventually found their way to botanical collections around the Islands, including Amy Greenwell; Allerton Garden and Limahuli Preserve on Kaua‘i; Kahanu Gardens in Hana and Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in Kahului on Maui; and the Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Gardens on O‘ahu. Retired plant pathologist Susan Schenck still tends to the heirloom collection that Moir founded on O‘ahu. “Originally there probably were sixty to eighty [varieties] that Moir collected,” she says. “Currently I probably have forty or fifty. Some are so beautiful, they’re really ornamental.” But, she notes, “They were chewing canes. They were very soft and could not be milled for sugar.”

In 1932, after years of travel and research, Moir published his findings in Society of Sugarcane Technologists Bulletin No. 7: The Native Hawaiian Canes. Lincoln calls it “the only real piece of literature that’s been produced on the Hawaiian canes. That’s our bible, our guiding document.” But long before Moir published his work on native canes, the organization he was working for, HSPA, had begun replacing them. HSPA’s breeding program created its first hybrid cane in 1905: a one-size-fits-all variety called H-109. H-109’s low juice-to-sugar ratio meant more sugar and fewer gunked-up gears at the mills. It was disease- and drought-resistant. Its cane stalks generally stood up straight instead of sprawling outward as many native varieties did, which meant more stalks packed onto the field. Commercial fields planted with H-109 quickly crowded out subsistence agriculture over vast areas. As the uses of cane shrank from many to one —producing refined crystalline sugar— so did the number of varieties. 

“By 1920, 80 percent of the cane grown in the state was this H-109,” says Lincoln. But even it couldn’t last. The breeding program continued to produce new hybrids every ten to twelve years to improve yields and keep up with introduced pests. According to Stephanie Whalen, the breeding program also produced varieties for “twelve different environmental niches,” from sunny Central O‘ahu to rainy Hamakua to dry Ka‘u.

Whalen heads the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC), which is what the HSPA became. In 1996, with the sugar industry collapsing on most islands, HSPA reorganized itself and became the nonprofit HARC and expanded its scope to include a number of other crops. Sugar is still a key player, however: Even today, HARC maintains about two thousand different breeding clones of cane at its research station in Maunawili on O‘ahu, and it continues to produce new cultivars. “Agriculture is no different a business model than anything else. You’ve got to create new things to stay alive,” Whalen says. The Hawaiian varieties, she adds, “are not useful for commercial purposes — at least past commercial purposes.”

Enter the entrepreneurs. Robert Dawson came to O‘ahu four years ago with a background in information technology, not agriculture. But he was after a business opportunity tied to the Islands, and he started looking for one in the decline of the sugar industry. He first considered the idea of cane as biofuel, but when he crunched the numbers he didn’t like what he saw. Then he started looking at traditional Hawaiian cane varieties.

“They express Hawai‘i in, I think, a unique way,” he says, “and there’s an opportunity to do a lot, from medicine, scrubs, cosmetics, beverages—there’s any number of products you can make, and there are uses for the bagasse [the residue left after sugar is extracted], too.” That waxy coating that helps cane stalks control water loss, for example? Dawson believes it could be used to make surfboard wax.

For the past two years, with the help of Lincoln, HARC and various botanical gardens, he’s been collecting native cane varieties for farmland he’s leased in Central O‘ahu. He started with manulele, the legendary love cane, and thus was born the Manulele Cane Company. Dawson plans to reveal his product line this year; he’s also working with HARC to create a reserve where he hopes to plant all of the known Hawaiian cane varieties.

Back on the Big Island, John Caverly and Jackie Prell are already underway with their product line. With just seventeen acres, an heirloom cultivar and a little Hilo restaurant, the two farmers are reviving the island’s cane-growing tradition. About thirty-five years ago a Hawaiian kupuna (elder) named Poli Alani gave Caverly a plump, yellow, almost bamboo-like ko; it was, Alani told Caverly, known for its healing properties. When Caverly and Prell acquired some former sugar plantation land on the North Hilo coast five years ago, they planted the cane there. The land had been severely depleted by decades of commercial cane production, but the pair, who between them have five decades of organic farming experience, replenished and revitalized the soil with Korean natural farming techniques that use organic additives and naturally occurring bacteria and fungi.

The cane juice they’re now selling, Organic Hawaiian Cane Rush, is equally as nourishing for the human body, says Prell: “It’s full of complex carbohydrates. It’s a very ancient food, something your body easily assimilates.” The pair has come up with a variety of flavors by adding organic ingredients to the cane juice. There’s Ginger Twist, for instance, and Liliko‘i and a drink called Hot Kiss, made with ginger, turmeric, pepper and lime. They began marketing their juices three years ago, and last August opened the Sweet Cane Café on Kilauea Avenue in Hilo.

Aside from its nutritional value, the juice has another quality for some: nostalgia. “People come in and talk about how they used to chew cane as a kid,” says Prell, “or work in the cane fields and the cane factories and drink the juice as it was pressed back then.”

As the sun goes down over the ocean at Kealakekua, Lincoln pauses by a clump of cane called ‘ohi‘a, like the native tree. He severs a stalk with a quick whack of his cane knife, cuts sections from the lower part of the stalk and passes pieces to the people with him. “Gravity draws the sugars down to the lower third of the cane,” he explains. “The top part tastes more bitter and kind of acrid.” Everyone bites through the tough skin of the cane, chews the soft pulp beneath, sucks out the cool, sweet juice, then spits out the pulp. Between bites they joke and talk story. Mauna Loa rises behind, witnessing an old, old scene.

This profile first appeared in June/July 2012 issue of Hana Hou!, the magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.  Thank you to Jonathan Likeke Scheuer for sending it to us after seeing it on a flight to Kona.  You can read the original article and see the accompanying photos at the Hana Hou! website.

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