Taro traveled through China and Japan, southward to Indonesia, taken to Melanesia and then into Polynesia. Earliest Polynesian settlers brought taro around 450 A.D.
Hawaii primarily grows wetland taro in patches (lo`i) that are directly irrigated from rivers or streams and taro thrives best in aerated moving water. They can tolerate swampy or marshy conditions and a fair level of acidity. Best adapted in warm, moist, tropical environment.
Dry land taro, though grown in Hawaii is more common in other parts of the Pacific,and grown in areas of high rainfall as they generally depend on natural precipitation. It can be cultivated in uplands as high as 4000 ft.
Taro is an herbaceous perennial with clusters of smooth heart-shaped leaves.
The leaf blades may be green, purple or mottled. The leaf stems (petioles)
may be green, reddish, black or variegated.
Taro functions primarily as a food source. It was documented in Chinese books as a food source since 100 BC. Egypt, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Central America and Africa consumed the carbohydrate corm as well. Taro was more than just the principal staple food in Hawaii. Hawaiians have an attachment to taro , taro was the first-born and superior to man. This closeness with the taro plant was evident in its impressive cultivation and many uses. It had religious, medicinal and functional art purposes on top of being the main staple food.
As a food source it was so important that it was referred to simply as `ai, which means food in Hawaiian. Practically the entire plant is edible. The leaves were cooked and eaten like spinach. The stems were placed inside laulaus to keep the meat moist. But the corm was the main reason for its cultivation. The corm was cooked; otherwise the raphides would cause great discomfort to the mouth and throat, and usually pounded with sparse amounts of water to make a paste. This was consumed in large quantities, as rice is consumed in Asia. A dessert was also made out of the corm called kulolo. This was a combination of fresh grated taro, coconut cream, and sweetened by the juice from the sugarcane. Taro had an impact on religion as well.
Occasionally taro was substituted for fish offerings at various shrines. The taro was also considered to be a kinolau (body form) of the god Kane, the great life giver. It was a phallic symbol and kapu (forbidden) to women. Because women were considered to be impure they were not allowed to handle the taro, including the raising, harvesting, or making of poi.
Medicinally the raw corm shavings were mixed with other plants and the juice was ingested to treat constipation and indigestion. The raw leaf stems were used to relieve the pain and prevent swelling from insect stings and bites and the leaves were used to treat asthma.
According to Abbott, although it was not common practice, the petioles (stalk) was sometimes used to make dots or semicircle designs on kapa (cloth). In fact, certain varieties were used as a source of red kapa dye. As you can see the taro was a part of every aspect of Hawaiian life.
The unique flat lands and abundant fresh water allowed the Hawaiians to cultivate the taro like no other populace. Perhaps the Hawaiians deviated from breadfruit as the staple food because upon arrival there were no such trees and the propagules that they brought with them took three to five years to bear fruit. Fortunately certain varieties of taro matured within six to twelve months and could stay in the lo`i for up to 24 months, serving as a storehouse as well.
Today you can find taro products in all large American supermarkets. A few such items include taro chips, taro bread, poi, poi cheesecake, taro pan, taro English muffins and kulolo. Taro is also highly digestible, so much so that it is bottled as baby food. Although we as consumers lack the history and culture to appreciate such an amazing plant, we can all appreciate the delicious products made possible by taro.
Taro is the staple of Hawaiians. It is considered the kinolau (body form) of the great God Kane (procreator and giver of life). Taro is culturally connected to the people as a root superior and older than the people. The royal taro of apu wai collected rainwater in the cup-shaped leaves and was considered sacred and pure because it never touched the grounds, thus was used for Hawaiian blessings.