POSTED: 21 OCTOBER 2007 - 10:30pm HST

Taro: The staple food plant of Hawaii

image above: Taro in front of Walter Ritte and Mark Query listening to Jerry Konanui at Taro Conference

Birds and Plants of Kauai:
Kalo is Haloa - The ancestor of the Hawaiians

by Linda Pascatore on 21 October 2007

Taro (Kalo), or Colocasia esculenta, is one of the earliest cultivated plants. It is the traditional staple food plant of Hawaii and many Polynesian Islands.

Taro is rich in vitamins and minerals, and provides starch, which makes it a good food plant. The plant is used in India, Nepal, China, Japan, Africa, and Indonesia, and throughout Polynesia. In fact, about 10% of the world population uses taro or similar plants as a staple food.

Taro has large green elongated heart-shaped leafs and green, red or black stems. It grows several feet high. The bulbous root or corm is the primary food starch plant, but the leaves are also eaten.

Baby plants grow out of the base of the corm. When harvesting taro, the huli, which is the top of the corm and part of the stem, is cut off and replanted, eventually forming a whole new corm for harvesting. The taro plant has virtually lost its ability to flower or reproduce in the wild, which is one reason it is considered one of the oldest plants in cultivation.

Taro probably originated in Malaysia. It was in cultivation in parts of India by 5000 BC, and from there was brought to Egypt and mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman histories. Taro also spread east to China and Indonesia, and was eventually brought as a canoe plant by the Polynesians to Hawaii.

There are 87 different varieties of taro, including Chinese or dry land taro. The wetland taro is grown in a loi or enclosed bed filled with water. Dryland taro can be grown in rich soil with enough moisture, but does not have to be under water.

The taro root, which can be white or reddish in color, can be boiled, steamed, baked, or made into poi. It is also fried and made into taro chips. Taro burgers have recently become popular with vegetarians.

Taro contains needle-like raphides, or calcium oxalate crystals, which irritate the throat, so taro must be cooked thoroughly before eating. Taro leaves should be boiled at least 45 minutes, and the root or corm should be boiled for at least an hour.

Poi is made by peeling the cooked corm and pounding the taro on a wooden board, with a stone pounder. This produces a thick paste, which is dried. Then water is added, the taro is kneaded, and then aged. It was traditionally eaten with the fingers, and is called one-finger, two-finger, or three-finger poi, depending on how thick it is. Taro leaves are eaten as greens, or used to wrap other foods like lau-lau for steaming.

Taro has smaller starch grains rich in amylose, which makes it more digestible than other starches. It is a good food for those with digestive problems, babies, and those with food allergies. Taro is higher in protein than potatoes, and rich in calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C.

Taro, or Kalo, is sacred to the Hawaiians. The stem of the kalo is called Ha or breath, and the place where the stem meets the leaf is called the piko, or navel. The stem itself is ha, or breath. The young shoots that surround the mother plant are the keiki, or children; and together they form the ohana, or family.

According to legend, the Sky Father, Wakea, and the Earth Mother, Papa, had a stillborn son named Haloa-naka. After Haloa-naka was buried, the kalo plant grew from his grave. Haloa is another name for kalo or taro, and it means everlasting breath. Later, humans were created from the same union, and were sustained by the food provided by their older brother, Haloa.Production of taro in the Hawaiian islands has gone from 14 million pounds in 1948 to 4 million in 2005. Loss of agricultural land to development accounts for most of this decrease. However, the exotic apple snail and the fungus Phytophthora have also caused declines in the taro harvest.

A more recent and insidious threat comes from Genetic Engineering. The GMO industry has made Hawaii the site of large open field experimentation, endangering many native species with this unproven and potentially dangerous tampering with mother nature. Genetically modifying taro could endanger the entire species because of cross contamination, which could be irreversible. It also threatens the taro market, since so many countries in the world have bans on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).

In 2002, the University of Hawaii patented the rights to three varieties of traditional Hawaiian taro, and the next year began to research genetic engineering of taro. After years of protests by Native Hawaiians taro growers, and Hawaii Seed, the university dropped its patents on taro in 2006. However, they continue to experiment with Chinese varieties of taro.

Groups seeking to protect kalo have introduced legislation for a ten year moratorium on genetic engineering of taro. Despite a protest in the state capitol, the legislation was stuck in committee in 2006. However, an action is being planned to promote this legislation at the opening of the next session in January, 2008.

For more information on Genetic Modification of Taro and action you can take to prevent it, go to:

Support SB 958

Senate Bill 958 asks for a 10 year moratorium on developing, testing, propagating, cultivating, growing, and raising genetically engineered taro in the state of Hawaii.

Please submit written testimont for SB 958:
email -
fax - (808) 587-0793 The Public Access Rom
in person at the State Capital -
415 South Beretania Street, Honolulu, Hawaii

for more bill info visit:

We will announce the date of the hearing when it is scheduled in January 2008.
The hearings are announced 48 hours prior to the hearing date. Prepare your letter or testimony now and add the committee, date and room number later.

Stop the University of Hawaii's research to insert DNA from wheat, rice and grapevine into our taro!

see also:
Island Breath:
Island Breath: Backyard Taro farming 5/24/07

For more on Hawaiian Nature see below:
Island Breath: Hawaiian Nature Menu
The Flora and Fauna of Hawaii

30 July 2007 - 8:00am HST

Pinao: The Giant Hawaiian Dragonfly is the largest dragonfly in the United States and the fastest flying
10 January 2007 - 9:00am HST

Hawaii Nature: The Monkeypod trees Not a native tree but a guardian that remains