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Farmers in Hanalei, Kaua'i harvest taro
Photo by Linda Moriarty, 1989

The taro plant in Hawai'i

Chinese writings of 2000 years ago mention the cultivation of taro, Colocasia esculenta. Taro was one of the plants the first Polynesian settlers brought to Hawai'i about 1500 years ago.

Before 1778, about 300 varieties of taro were grown in Hawai'i. Taro is usually cultivated in a complex terraced system of lo'i (field ponds) fed by 'auwai (ditches). Wetland taro grows under a slow-moving layer of water throughout its life. At one time, taro fields covered the fertile floors of the windward valleys of all major islands. Today, because of the scarcity of water and agricultural land, only a few such areas remain.

Except for a few large commercial ventures, most farmers cultivate taro part-time. Taro fields are quickly disappearing from the rural landscape. Poi, a pounded, paste-like food made from boiled taro and once the most important staple in the Hawaiian diet, is today considered a rare delicacy. Other foods, primarily rice, have taken over as a major Hawaiian dietary staple.

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7 February 1996