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Taro, or kalo in the Hawaiian language, is a staple crop that has been grown in Hawaii for centuries. Often mashed into the beloved dish called poi, taro is deeply intertwined with Native Hawaiian culture and traditions.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Taro is a root vegetable that has been a staple crop and important cultural symbol in Hawaii for hundreds of years. It is used to make the traditional Hawaiian dish called poi.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the history of taro in Hawaii, its cultural significance, how it’s grown and harvested, the traditional Hawaiian foods it’s used in, and much more.

The History and Origins of Taro in Hawaii

Taro’s Arrival with Early Polynesian Settlers

Taro (Colocasia esculenta) has a long history in Hawaii, stretching back centuries to the earliest Polynesian settlers. According to Hawaiian legends, the god Wakea and goddess Papa originated taro when their daughter was born as an unformed mass which they shaped into human form and named Haloanaka, the first taro plant.

Taro thus has a divine origin in Hawaiian mythology.

Archaeological evidence shows that early Polynesian voyagers transported taro with them on their epic canoe journeys from islands in the Marquesas and Tahiti to Hawaii around 300-600 AD (Hawaii History).

Taro was such a staple crop that no long-distance voyage or settlement was possible without it. In fact, one of Hawaiian words for family, ʻohana, is derived from the words ʻohā, which means the corm-like base of the taro plant.

This signifies the historical and cultural importance of taro in Hawaiian society.

Prominence in Traditional Hawaiian Society and Culture

For centuries in ancient Hawaii, taro occupied a central place in the traditional lifestyle, diet, Hawaiian beliefs and agricultural system of Native Hawaiians. It was considered the most important staple crop, known as the “staff of life.” Taro featured prominently in birth rituals, creation chants, religious practices, proverbs, place names, and traditional Hawaiian medicine.

Pounded taro corms and leaves mixed with water produced the Hawaiian staple food poi, while taro leaves wrapped with coconut milk and meat made luau stew.

Taro was also integral to the well-managed irrigation systems that supported wetland taro cultivation, called loʻi. These ingenious gravity flow systems diverted stream water through hand-built canals, weirs and aqueducts down into sunken pondfields.

Hawaiians carefully tended thousands of these irrigated taro pondfield systems that enabled their societies to be self-sufficient in food. So taro was at the heart of the staple crop production system that sustained a large, stable population in ancient Hawaii for over a thousand years.

Decline and Resurgence of Taro Farming

After Western contact in 1778, Hawaiian taro production experienced a sharp decline due to the loss of land, irrigation systems and farming skills during the 19th century. Factors like the introduction of rice, disease, urbanization, commercial agriculture and westernization relegated taro from its once dominant role.

By the early 20th century very little traditional wetland taro cultivation remained intact.

In recent decades, however, there has been a renewed interest in revitalizing Hawaiian taro. Farmers, researchers and community members have been working together to preserve heirloom varieties, restore loʻi irrigation systems, improve cultivation techniques and expand the market for taro.

According to Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture statistics (HDOA), around 600 acres were planted in taro statewide in 2021, producing nearly 7 million pounds. This taro renaissance ensures the continuance of this culturally treasured crop into the future.

Growing and Harvesting Taro in Hawaii

Ideal Growing Conditions for Taro

Taro thrives in warm, tropical climates with high humidity and rainfall. The optimal growing conditions include daytime temperatures of 25-35°C and night temperatures around 15-20°C. Taro requires wet soil and does best when grown in flooded fields or irrigated terraces, as it needs constant moisture around its roots and stems.

In Hawaii, taro is traditionally grown in lo’i – plots of fertile land irrigated by streams and drainage from the mountains. These pond fields provide the perfect wet growing environment for taro. The flooded conditions also help nourish the soil with nutrients and prevent weed growth.

Traditional Flooded Terrace Farming Techniques

For centuries, native Hawaiians have cultivated taro in ingeniously engineered lo’i pond fields carved into mountain valleys and nourished by stream systems. This unique gravity-fed irrigation system directs water into terraced ponds where taro is planted.

The traditional Hawaiian way of growing taro has changed little over generations. Farmers still tend lo’i ponds filled with water drawn from streams high in valleys. They plant taro starts in nutrient-rich mud under shallow water.

As taro grows taller, farmers control and direct water among terraces, ensuring taro gets the moisture and nutrients it needs while also flushing out pests.

Plant Varieties and Harvest Times

There are over 300 varieties of taro grown in Hawaii today. Popular Hawaiian taro varieties include Lehua Maoli, Mana ‘Opal, and Maui Lehua. Growth times range from 8-18 months before harvest depending on the variety.

Dasheen is the main variety grown for its edible corms and floury texture when cooked. This takes around 8-12 months to reach harvest size. Other varieties like bun-long taro are multi-harvest crops. Their leaves and smaller corms can be continually harvested over 18 months before the main corm is dug up.

Taro is ready for harvesting when the leaves turn yellow and start to die back. At this stage, the corm is largest in size having stored up enough starch for the next growing cycle. The ideal time to harvest is during dry seasons when water is receded from lo’i ponds for ease of access.

Uses of Taro in Traditional Hawaiian Cuisine

Central Role in Poi

Taro holds a central role in Hawaiian cuisine, especially through poi. This thick paste made from cooked and mashed taro is a staple food and cultural touchstone across the islands. Poi can trace its history in Hawaii back to the days of early Polynesian settlement and serves as an important link to native traditions.

Fun fact: Around 300 varieties of taro are found in Hawaii, allowing for poi in a rainbow of distinctive colors and flavors! Each island tends to have its preferred cultivars for optimal growth and taste.

Other Dishes Featuring Taro

Beyond poi, taro appears in a diverse array of traditional Hawaiian foods:

  • Laulau – Meat wrapped in taro or luau leaves and steamed
  • Kulolo – A taro-coconut pudding dessert
  • Squid luau – Cooked taro leaves combined with coconut milk and octopus

Taro leaves, stems, and corms all find their way into customary dishes. And creative takes keep expanding with popular items like taro burgers, chips, and tacos. Chefs celebrate taro’s versatility while respecting cultural heritage.

For Hawaiians, taro reciprocal: nourishing people physically and spiritually. Taro feeds families, anchors ceremonies, and bonds communities. Around the islands, locals look to a thriving, resilient crop of taro for generations to come. The future remains rooted in this sacred plant.

The Cultural Significance of Taro for Native Hawaiians

Storied References in Hawaiian Legends and Myths

Taro (kalo in Hawaiian) holds a central place in Native Hawaiian culture and mythology. According to legend, the Hawaiian people are descendants of the taro plant itself. The story goes that a stillborn infant son of the sky father Wākea and earth mother Papa was buried and from his body grew the first taro plant.

His daughter Ho‘ohokukalani was later born and along with her older brother became the progenitors of the Hawaiian race.

This storied connection between taro and the Hawaiian people is referenced in many ancient Hawaiian myths and legends. In stories and chants, taro is celebrated as an elder sibling to the Hawaiian people.

There are even accounts in traditional Hawaiian songs and poetry that humanize taro, giving it limbs and sensory abilities like a person.

Beyond origin stories, taro features prominently in tales recounting the adventures of Hawaiian gods and heroes. For example, the demigod Kamapua‘a is said to have planted taro across the islands. And the snow goddess Poliahu is linked to a version of the taro plant that grows in upland areas.

Clearly, taro has deep mythological ties for Native Hawaiians.

Enduring Spiritual Importance

In addition to legends that connect taro to Hawaii’s very origins, taro continues to hold spiritual significance for Native Hawaiians today. Taro is considered the most pious of plants. It is respected, even revered, as an elder sibling in the Hawaiian tradition known as the “Hawaiian family”, or ‘ohana.

Various rituals and observances highlight taro’s enduring cultural importance. For example, when cooking taro, many Hawaiian families include prayers or chants asking the plant for forgiveness. And before consuming poi (a traditional dish made by mashing and fermenting taro), people express gratitude to both the taro plant and to Hāloa, the ancestor who sprung from that first taro plant.

Beyond food, taro plays a role in cultural practices related to childbirth, weddings, funerals, and rites of passage. In all of these ceremonies, taro is woven symbolically throughout traditional song, dance, adornment, and ritual. Clearly, much more than a staple crop, taro is a cherished elder kin.

Its presence ties the Hawaiian people back to their very origins and imbues cultural traditions with deeper meaning even today.

Current Status and New Applications

Commercial Production Challenges

Taro, a staple crop in Hawaii for centuries, has faced some challenges in commercial production in recent years. Despite strong local demand, the amount of land devoted to taro cultivation has declined over the past few decades. Several factors have contributed to this trend:

  • Labor shortages – Taro is a very labor-intensive crop to grow, requiring a lot of physical work to tend the fields and harvest the corms. With an aging farmer population and lack of interest from younger generations, there is a shortage of workers willing to take on this demanding job.
  • Water access issues – Taro is typically grown in flooded paddies, requiring consistent access to fresh water irrigation. Competing demands on limited water resources in Hawaii has made this difficult to sustain.
  • Cost of production – Between labor, water, land rents, and other input costs, commercially growing taro can have narrow profit margins that make it less appealing versus other crops or land uses.

In light of these obstacles, the total acreage used for taro cultivation in Hawaii has dropped by over 50% since the early 1990s. Both public and private initiatives to address production challenges will be needed to reverse this trend and ensure taro remains an integral part of Hawaii’s agricultural portfolio into the future.

Innovative and Modern Uses

While traditional taro farming faces challenges, there are also new and innovative applications of this versatile tropical crop emerging that could boost its commercial viability:

  • Value-added food products – Rather than selling raw taro for cooking, many Hawaiian businesses are now using taro to create ready-to-eat snacks, baked goods, desserts, and other products. This adds convenience while also increasing the revenue potential.
  • Ornamental uses – The vibrant green leaves and heart-shaped form of taro plants have ornamental appeal. Taro is now being used commercially in water gardens, koi ponds, floral arrangements, and as an accent plant in landscapes across Hawaii.
  • Health supplements and skin care – With growing appreciation of its nutritional properties, taro is now being processed into powders, juices, and extracts to create supplements and natural health products. Its starch is also used in organic cosmetics and skin creams by Hawaiian companies.
  • Cultural education – Taro holds an esteemed place in Hawaiian traditions. Hands-on taro farming operations focused on cultural education tours, school field trips, and community workshops are preserving knowledge while also generating income through agritourism.

By capitalizing on diverse uses beyond just staple food production, taro may have new life breathed into this culturally treasured crop in Hawaii.


For over 1,500 years, taro has sustained Native Hawaiians both physically and culturally. This versatile crop continues to be an important part of Hawaiian agriculture, cuisine, and identity today. As an integral piece of the islands’ history and heritage, taro in Hawaii has a past filled with tradition and a future ripe with potential.

We hope this guide has helped explain exactly what taro is in the Hawaiian context. From its origins in ancient Polynesia to its modern resurgence, taro remains deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture.

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