Kō (Saccharum officinarum)

Eye On Plants

Among the two dozen or so ‘canoe plants’ introduced to Hawaiʻi by the first Polynesian voyagers, sugarcane is one of the most widely grown in the tropical world. Called kō in Hawaiian, elsewhere sugarcane is known as to (Marquesas, Tonga), tolo (Samoa, Tuvalu), and dovu (Fiji). This sturdy member of the Poaceae (grass family) may have been first cultivated in Papua New Guinea, possibly originating as Saccharum spontaneum, a relative of S. officinarum.

Ko (Saccharum officinarum)
Hāpai Sugercane Photo by Jon Letman

Kō (Saccharum spontaneum) is valued for its sucrose-rich fibrous pulp which is used to sweeten food, drinks, and medicine or (as old-timers will tell you) cut fresh with a cane knife and chewed in the field. For early Hawaiians, kō was more than a sweetener. It provided thatching, mulch, compost, an ornamental wind break, and served as a soil stabilizer.

NTBG senior research botanist Dr. David Lorence first encountered sugarcane as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1970, working in a program of agricultural diversification with the Mauritius Sugarcane Industry Research Institute. Like Hawaiʻi, the southwest Indian Ocean island nation supported a vibrant sugarcane industry before it turned toward tourism.

Dave Lorence notes that while sugarcane has played a central role in the economies and development of many tropical countries, it also bears a darker history based on slavery and indentured laborers. Fortunes were made and empires built on the backs of laborers who toiled in cane fields doing back-breaking work, cutting and stacking cane by hand in dirty, sometimes dangerous conditions.

Furthermore, the industry was known for its insatiable (and often destructive) thirst for water, waste runoff, heavy fertilization, and industrial pollution. During harvest time, when drier, lower leaves were burned off the cane, Hawaiʻi’s skies blackened with soot and ash.

Hawaii’s own industrial sugarcane industry began on Kauaʻi in the town of Kōloa and quickly spread across the islands, fueling the migration of workers from Asia, the Caribbean, and beyond, leading to cultural and societal shifts that remain today.

Despite its checkered past, many in Hawaiʻi harbor deep affection for ko, and rue wistfully for the recent past when the days grew shorter, the cane grew taller, and its silvery tassels blew in the wind, signaling autumn harvest, the rising of the Pleiades (Na huihui o makaliʻi), and return of the Hawaiian Makahiki season.

In 2022, NTBG hosted Dr. Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, a Hawaiian crop specialist at the University of Hawaiʻi. Noa worked closely with NTBG staff to verify the provenance and identity of the Garden’s kō collection. Presently, NTBG has 11 sugarcane cultivars in McBryde Garden, eight at Limahuli Garden, and an estimated 27 at Kahanu Garden.

Kahanu Garden director Mike Opgenorth worked with Noa to verify cultivars and identify duplicates among the garden’s collection. Mike says that Hawaiian kō varieties have adapted to thrive in very specific microclimates which can make growing them together in one collection a challenge. With its mix of traditional Hawaiian cultivars and other, more recent ones, Mike says Kahanu Garden is a great place for people to experience the splendor of sugarcane growing in robust clumps.

Mike spoke of the importance of the plants in perpetuating cultural knowledge, naming a little-known variety called Koeli lima a o Halalii which translates as the hand-dug cane of Halaliʻi, a rare white-stalked cane known to grow in the sandy dunes along Halaliʻi, a seasonal lake on the island of Niʻihau. When exposed to the sun, the cane’s stripes turn lime green and iridescent pink. Nourished by Niʻihau’s freshwater springs and periodic rainfall from Mt. Paniau, the legendary ko is mentioned in the centuries-old stories and chants of Niʻihau

“The Hawaiians name everything and have a reason for doing that. Every wind and every rain has a name. Every cultivar of every canoe plant also has a name,” said Mike DeMotta. “But if you don’t know the name, you don’t know what you can do with it.”

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