Ark of Taste
Hālāli‘i Sugar Cane
Kō (Saccharum officinarum) v.Hālāli‘i
While many people are aware of the extensive history of sugarcane in Hawai’i, fewer people recognize that the Hawaiians cultivated some 50-60 varieties of sugarcane prior to European arrival. In fact, the modern sugarcane that spurred plantations and production around the world originated in the Pacific in Papua New Guinea. Because Hawai‘i was an essential breeding area and experimental station for early sugarcane production, many modern sugarcane hybrids have distant ancestry of Hawaiian sugarcanes in their pedigree.
Hawaiians were perhaps the most innovative farmers in the Pacific, likely due to the broad range of soil types and ecological habitats located in the islands; across these diverse ecosystems they cultivated foods in a variety of ways. Sugarcane was often an essential part of the cropping system, and could be found cultivated along flooded terraces of Taro, forming hedges of windbreaks in extensive Sweet Potato plantations, growing in mulched pits on fresh lava rock, or in a variety of other settings. Hawaiians used sugar much as we do today. The soft, sweet stalks could be chewed on directly as a quick sugary snack. The juice was extracted and used in a range of culinary preparations, such as Haupia, a coconut-crème pudding, or Kūlolo, a Taro-based dessert. Sugarcane juice was used to sweeten medicinal concoctions or as an active ingredient in fermentation. Today it has a wide range of culinary applications. The pressed juice is often used directly in mixes such as for a Mojito. Spears of the pith can be used in cooking meat or flavoring other dishes.
The different varieties developed by the Hawaiians excelled in different habitats, vary considerably in their appearance, and also vary in their taste, sugar content, and mineral quality.
Hālāli‘i is a green and yellow or light orange striped cane with slightly variegated leaves. It is said to be a tough cane, thriving in the most marginal of climates, and that it does not tassel freely.
The plant consists of a common root clump that supports several straight, typically unbranched stalks. The stalks range in height from 2 to 6 meters and have a disproportionately small diameter, typically 2 to 8 centimeters. They are variably coated in a wax coating, called the bloom, which can be virtually non-existent or so thick as to obscure the true stalk color beneath a frosty facade. The strong and rigid external part of the stalks protects the soft interior that is filled with an airy or watery spongy tissue. It is from the soft, juicy interior of the stalk that sugar is extracted.
The leaves are generally smooth on the top and bottom, but like all grasses have serrated, saw-tooth edges that can irritate the skin and even cause cuts.
Sugarcane takes approximately 2 years from planting before it begins to flower. Canes typically flower in the late fall or early winter in the tropics, with the most flowering occurring in November or December. The individual flowers are typically rosy to pale lavender colored and fade to white or silver as they seed. The stalks are harvested at full maturity but before flowering, as the flowering process lowers the sugar content.
The dramatic history of sugar plantations around the world is what comes to mind when people think of sugarcane. Unfortunately, with the advent of focused breeding programs aimed at maximizing monoculture production the heirloom varieties developed by Hawaiian agriculturalists have been overshadowed by commercial hybrids, and many have already been lost to history. These commercial varieties have been so well engineered for their purpose that they became useless for backyard growers. The tough rind and relatively low sugar content that has been bred into the commercial canes is optimized for large scale mills and plantation-style agriculture, and prevents any small scale usage of these accessible varieties. However, the Pacific heirloom varieties, exemplified by the Hawaiian varieties, are soft, thick, and extremely sweet - ideally suited for low-infrastructure usage.
A core collection of about 30-40 known Hawaiian canes still exists through several small organizations devoted to Hawaiian ethnobotany. These organizations promote their usage and disseminate cuttings of the varieties to all who inquire. Although the remaining varieties are stable and cared for in several collections, they are not widespread outside of these collections. Currently there are only two known producers using the heirloom cane varieties for moderate scale production, both of which make high end spirits.