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Bananas were one of the 24 original canoe plants the ancient Polynesians sailed with.

Jun 21, 2018

Hawaiian Canoe Plants

When the first Polynesians left their homelands to voyage through the Pacific, they packed their canoes with resources for survival on the high seas and for sustenance on any newfound island they may lay down roots.

The ancient Polynesians that discovered the Hawaiian Islands filled their sailing canoes with food staples like 'ulu (breadfruit), kalo (taro), 'uala (sweet potato), mai'a (banana), niu (coconut), and ko (sugar cane). They also saved some space for pigs and chickens, and trolled for fish daily. Today, you can find many of the original 24 canoe plants growing in farms across the state and available at the Kakaako Farmers' Market. If you're in Honolulu, stop by our weekly market (open every Saturday 8am-noon) and scope out these culturally significant, versatile, and delicious crops.

Banana – Mai'a

Banana, or mai'a in Hawaiian, was one of the earliest canoe plants brought to the Hawaiian Islands. Legend tells of a brother of Pele who was responsible for bringing the beloved banana to Hawai'i from Tahiti. In fact, mai'a was such an integral culinary factor that it's featured into many Hawaiian chants. Because mai'a proved to be so abundant, there were reported to be more than 50 varieties of banana available, and some of those early varieties of banana still grow wild in protected valleys. Today, you can find several varieties of locally grown banana at Kaka'ako Farmers' Market. Look for cooking bananas, sweet apple bananas, and the soft and succulent ice cream banana—a short and plump banana with a bluish-hued skin. Find mai'a at the Fields of Aloha tent.

Sweet Potato – 'Uala

A staple food of pre-contact Hawaiians, 'Uala grows easily in poor soil and dry climates, is a high-yield crop, is easily propagated from cuttings, and it tastes delicious. Interestingly enough, the early Hawaiians propagated more than 200 varieties of sweet potato. While most of us know how to cook up a sweet potato, early Hawaiians found a way to use almost all aspects of the plant. In addition to enjoying the sweet and nutritious tuber, the leaves can also be steamed, boiled, or baked—the tender, new leaves being the most desirable. To boot, ' Uala is a great source of vitamin A, calcium, and phosphorus. For early Hawaiians, 'uala was also used for medicinal purposes. You can find 'uala at the Ed's Little Farm tent.

Taro – Kalo

Arguably the most famous of all the canoe plants, kalo, or more commonly known as taro, played an integral role in shaping the is one of the most well known of the Hawaiian canoe plants and is ubiquitous across the state. Hearty and healthy, kalo can be grown in both dryland patches, or water-filled planting beds. For ancient Hawaiians, kalo was believed to have the greatest life force of all foods. According to a creation chant, kalo grew from the first-born son of Wakea (sky father) and Papa (earth mother). A staple in Hawaiian food, poi is the pounded form of the kalo corm and was the pinnacle means of survival for the early Hawaiian people. Ever resourceful, early Hawaiians learned that the leaves are also edible, but must be cooked, and can be used for lu'au. Kalo can be found at the Fields of Aloha tent.

Fiddlehead Fern – hō'i'o

Though not one of the 24 canoe plants, fiddlehead ferns are a Hawaiian culinary delicacy found growing wild in wet rainforests across the state. The young shoots are edible and the variety found in Hawai'i are said to be very tender with a taste similar to asparagus and a texture like that of okra. The delicate shoots are harvested right as they begin to unfurl. They can be eaten raw after a good wash or quickly blanched, and are thought to contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as vitamins B and C. Toss the trimmed and cleaned hō'i'o into salads, or as a garnish on top of your favorite stir fry or roasted vegetable dish. Check out the Hiraoka Farms booth for fresh cut hō'i'o.

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