Photo: ʻUala
ʻUala tubers were reported in 19th century Hawaiian newspapers as growing to sizes in excess of 20 lbs. - Courtesy Photo

By Tori Kiliʻohu Valdez

ʻUala (Hawaiian sweet potato), is one of the important canoe plants that came here with our kūpuna – but the ʻuala today is nothing like the ones our kūpuna cultivated.

There are hundreds of documented varieties and many of them had specific characteristics that aligned with the ʻāina they were grown in – and some strains were grown only by certain families. ʻUala grows in a range of environments. It needs little to no water and can even grow in ʻaʻā (rocky soil) if tended to correctly.

For these reasons, ʻuala cultivation was widespread, especially in the dry regions of our pae ʻāina. It is documented in various nūpepa Hawaiʻi that the ʻuala grown in the 19th century grew to sizes much larger than those seen today. A single ʻuala could feed many mouths.

As early as 1844, Hawaiian language newspapers bore witness to the prowess of our mahiʻai ʻuala (sweet potato farmers). In 1865, the Pacific Commercial Advertiser described a 22-pound ʻuala harvested by a farmer in Hilo, Hawaiʻi. In 1871, the same newspaper reported that an ʻuala weighing 25 pounds was harvested in Hāna, Maui.

Ka Nūpepa Kūʻokoʻa also participated in the bragging with an article announcing a 14-pound ʻuala harvested in Kula, Maui, in 1875.

But the largest ʻuala of all was reported in on Sept. 4, 1875, when a 30-pound ʻuala was harvested by a farmer in Makena, Honuaʻula, Maui. This ʻuala probably fed the entire kauhale (village).

These examples provide evidence that large ʻuala were cultivated in different areas on all islands. I have also come across articles describing extremely large ʻuala being harvested in places on Niʻihau (1858) and on Molokaʻi (1867).

The Works of the People of Old, by Samuel Kamakau, also speaks of the cultivation of huge ʻuala during the late 1860s. Kamakau wrote, “Tubers (ʻuala corm) appeared: huge ones that filled each mound, and so big that in order to cook them thoroughly they had to be cut in pieces.” He goes on to describe the use of ʻuala as rollers under boats because they were so large. The lands of ko Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina were fertile and yielded an abundance of food.

If ʻuala this large were grown today, it would enhance ʻohana sustainability and food security – and we can look to the information documented in old nūpepa articles about how to do that. Such large ʻuala would cook well in an imu, whereas today’s smaller ʻuala often fall apart.

That was the ʻuala of the starchy ʻuala poi! You could cut up such a large ʻuala and steam it on a stove or bake in an oven. It is so versatile. ʻUala is a food plant that everyone can grow. I urge people now to investigate different native varieties of ʻuala and grow bigger ʻuala to feed the lāhui!

Tori Kiliʻohu Valdez is a haumana at UH Hilo.