Sweet Disposition

Ethnobotanist Noa Lincoln shares a brief history of Hawai‘i’s native sugarcane.

Text by Sarah Ruppenthal | Images by John Hook

You could say it was a sign of things to come. Eleven years ago, Noa Lincoln was passing a collection of Hawaiian sugarcane at the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden on Hawai‘i Island when something caught his eye: a plant identification sign was missing. Kneeling down for a closer look, he noticed there were several placards absent, while others were misplaced in the wrong spots.

“I realized no one was working on the cane,” Lincoln says. “So I figured I’d give it a shot.”

As the garden’s educational coordinator, Lincoln had plenty to keep him busy, but soon after his discovery, he embarked on a side project: Over the next few months, in his free time, he rolled up his sleeves and replanted the kō (the Hawaiian word for sugarcane). “I was well-versed in native crops, but I had no previous experience with sugarcane,” he says. “I never realized its horticultural diversity until I started working with it.” To accomplish the task at hand, Lincoln visited other kō collections across the state, including the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in Kahului and the Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Garden on O‘ahu.

Noa_sugarcane0002Eventually, he transformed the garden’s wayward kō collection into a main attraction. But Lincoln’s relationship with the perennial plant didn’t end there. “I found the cane to be charismatic and extremely attractive,” he says. “I wanted to learn more.” After three years at the garden, Lincoln left to pursue his doctorate at Stanford University. He is now an assistant professor at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he teaches courses in agriculture and environmental studies. He has also continued to classify and catalog the surviving varieties of kō, and teach how to identify Hawaiian varieties, which he and other researchers are still pinpointing.

“We need to continue to increase our knowledge,” Lincoln says. “It’s important to our culture.” As a Native Hawaiian born on Hawai‘i Island and raised on Maui (now the epicenter of commercial sugarcane production in Hawai‘i), he has long been intrigued by the enduring legacy of sugar, which played a significant role in Hawai‘i’s agricultural heritage before Westerners arrived. To qualify as Hawaiian sugarcane, it must be a descendant of one of the “canoe plants” brought to Hawai‘i by Polynesian settlers around 500 AD. “So far, we’ve identified more than 80 names of Hawaiian sugarcane,” Lincoln says.

In pre-contact Hawai‘i, the tall grasses of sugarcane were planted in clumps near homes and along the embankments of taro ponds, and played a key role in stabilizing banks in wetland areas. Kō was also consumed for ceremonial and even medicinal purposes. Roasted cane juice was fed as a tonic to nursing infants, and in times of famine, sugarcane was used to stave off hunger. Not surprisingly, it was also a perennial favorite for anyone with a sweet tooth. “It was cut down, skinned, and eaten,” Lincoln explains. “I guess you could call it a traditional candy bar.”

As missionaries and merchants began to arrive in the islands, opportunists realized that Hawai‘i offered perfect conditions to meet the West’s growing demand for sugar. Sugarcane became a commercial endeavor, leading to the establishment of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association in 1895, which sponsored a breeding program to produce a more hardy and fruitful cane crop. The association debuted the first hybrid cane in 1905, followed by more complex hybrids. Eventually, native canes were supplanted by non-native varieties in fields across the state. By the 1930s, Hawai‘i’s plantations were cranking out one million tons of sugar annually and employing half a million workers hailing from as far as the Philippines and Japan.

But sugar’s heyday in Hawai‘i was relatively short-lived. Business began to falter in the mid-1990s, leading to the closure of nearly all of the state’s sugar plantations. Today, the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, based on Maui, is the only major producer of raw and specialty sugar left in the islands. This company, which produces around 200,000 tons of raw sugar and more than 60,000 tons of molasses each year, employs nearly 800 workers on Maui, but it is also mired in controversy, as its pre-harvest burning of sugarcane fields (a practice designed to rid the plant of dried leaves) is viewed by many residents as a smoky and potentially harmful nuisance.

Noa_sugarcane0009While the fate of large-scale sugar production remains uncertain, Lincoln says the outlook is more optimistic for traditional sugarcane. “There’s been a revival lately,” he says. “A handful of small-scale commercial operations are now using traditional sugarcane.”

There’s also been a resurgence of public interest, which is why you’ll find Hawaiian sugarcane on display in ethnobotanical collections on O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island. On Maui, you can also view several varieties of kō at Ocean Vodka’s 80-acre Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery on the slopes of Haleakalā.

“I think there’s a good chance we’ll see more Hawaiian sugarcane in the future,” Lincoln says.

Maui Nui Botanical Gardens is located on Maui at 150 Kanaloa Ave. The Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Garden is located on O‘ahu at 59-864 Kamehameha Hwy. For more information, visit mnbg.org or waimeavalley.org.

Check out Kō: An Ethnobotanical Guide to Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties, written by Lincoln. This is the second comprehensive book on sugarcane. The first is The Native Hawaiian Canes, authored by W.W.G. Moir in 1932, which Lincoln refers to as “the sugarcane bible.”

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