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CTAHR and Kalo: Conserving a Legacy

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 12/31/2008 More stories >>

two taro books

Two popular taro publications are CTAHR’s Taro: Mauka to Makai and Taro Varieties in Hawaii.

Of all the plants that Polynesian settlers brought to Hawai‘i, kalo (taro) may be the most important. The starchy corm is rich in energy, minerals, and fiber, and the leaves provide vitamins and minerals. Prior to western contact, Hawaiians developed between 150 and 300 kalo varieties and may have planted more than 20,000 acres. Today, less than 400 acres of kalo remain, and very few Hawaiian varieties are produced commercially.

For more than a century, CTAHR has sought to support and expand kalo cultivation, and current initiatives to encourage kalo production benefit from this history. For example, between 1928 and 1935 the college assembled the Hawaiian Taro Collection to prevent further losses of kalo. Now, at the annual Taro Variety Field Day on Moloka‘i, CTAHR extension agent Alton Arakaki shares this collection—more than 60 Hawaiian kalo varieties—with members of the community. Thousands of huli of these rare cultivars have been distributed since the field day was established more than 20 years ago. Efforts are underway to catalog the college’s kalo holdings, reproduce the collection in new locations, and expand the distribution of huli.

Another recent project builds on the college’s past successes in breeding new taros through cross-pollination. In 1998, CTAHR plant pathologist John Cho set out to develop new varieties that combine taro leaf blight and aphid tolerance traits from non-Hawaiian parents with the desirable characteristics of Hawai‘i’s dominant commercial kalo variety, ‘Maui Lehua’. Several of the resulting hybrids have met the approval of farmers, processors, and poi testers, with taste and color comparable to ‘Maui Lehua’, but yields about 30 percent greater. These non-patented hybrids have been adopted by growers on four islands.

If you’re inspired to plant kalo and help this Hawaiian heirloom regain ground, you can find helpful information in the college’s recently revised best-practices manual, Taro Mauka to Makai, and the reprinted edition of the classic 1939 bulletin Taro Varieties in Hawaii. Both are available through CTAHR’s Office of Communication Services.