The Sweet Potato is the Food that Ends Famine Quickly

Ka Wai Ola

Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Photo: Claire Kuʻuleilani Hughes

ʻŌlelo Noʻeau no. 946
The sweet potato is the food that ends famine quickly.

The Hawaiian mahiʻai (farmer) was a skilled observer of nature. Mahiʻai watched the skies for sunlight and rain, and examined the soil for quality and growth potential for crops. The mahiʻai carefully observed plant growth and crop yields in a variety of environments, soil types and rains. Mahiʻai observed plant maturation and reproduction and learned to develop new varieties of kalo. By 1940, nearly 350 varietal kalo names were known in Hawaiʻi. More than 300 new varieties were developed from about two-dozen original kalo brought to Hawaiʻi by the first Hawaiians.

Kalo grows successfully in a variety of soils and hours of sunlight and a source of fresh water is needed. The first outsiders to visit Hawaiʻi in 1778 observed vast land areas devoted to neat, highly productive loʻi kalo (taro fields) throughout the islands. The large number of loʻi kalo and kalo varieties are clear evidence of the traditional food preferences of Native Hawaiians.

The mahiʻai used their skills with ʻuala (sweet potato), as well. ʻUala grew in a variety of soils, tolerated sunny environments, and grew in climates with intermittent rain that were too dry to support kalo crops. A 1940 report on locations and soils where ʻuala was grown recorded it growing in forest lands, in decomposed lava and humus, in white coral, red soil, and in gravelly, volcanic cinder. In fact, ʻUala farming abounded on the drier leeward sides of all islands and grows in all types of soil except clay.

Early Hawaiians developed and grew over 240 ʻuala varieties. The humble ʻuala made a perfect agricultural partner to the kalo in Hawaiian gardens. For mahiʻai, an important consideration was that ʻuala required less planting preparation and daily care than kalo. And ʻuala is ready to harvest within a month or so. In comparison, kalo requires much care, a constant and abundant source of cool, fresh, running water and most varieties take a year to mature. Thus, ʻuala proved essential for families managing brief periods of food shortages.

ʻUala is a rich source of carbohydrate calories, fiber and vitamins A and B, with the purple and orange varieties somewhat higher in vitamin A. ʻUala provides some vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus and iron and is low in sodium and fat. Kalo is also a rich source of carbohydrate calories, fiber, B vitamins, and several minerals. The green leaves of kalo and uala are very tasty when steamed with other herbs and fish or chicken. These greens provide abundant vitamin A and some B and C vitamins.

There is still some mystery regarding the arrival of the sweet potato in Hawaiʻi. Sir Peter Buck reported that ʻuala was brought to Hawaiʻi by Polynesian voyagers as canoe’s stores. Hawaiian planters worshiped their ancestral guardians. The guardians of kalo are Kāne and Lono. The guardians of ʻuala are Kānepuaʻa (pig man), Kamapuaʻa (pig boy), or Kūkeaolewa (Kū-of-the-floating-cloud).