Saccharum officinarum, sugar cane
For more than a century, “king sugar” was Hawai‘i’s major export crop, but those waving fields of sugar cane are now history. Many people assume that Maui’s vast green acres of kō began with the Polynesians who brought it to Hawai‘i, but commercial cane is a Western hybrid, homogenous and hardy. The varieties of sugar cane grown by Hawaiians were softer, the insides easier to chew. They were usually planted around gardens as an edible, beautiful windbreak, with stems striped or smudged with green, yellow and white, purple and pink. Hawaiians chewed the stalks on hot afternoons, or used the juice in cooking. Kō softened the taste of bitter medicines, and harnessed the body’s rapid metabolic absorption of sugar to get those medicines quickly into the bloodstream.
The outsides of cane stalks are sharp, and so could be carved into arrows for the popular sport of pana‘iole — shooting rats. The long leaves were used as thatching, and the charcoal from burnt kō made a black kapa dye. As with all canoe plants, this list of uses is just the beginning, since a valuable place in the voyaging canoes was earned by a plant with multifaceted uses.
Kō means “fulfilled,” and as a kinolau of the god Kāne, sugar cane is used in the ‘awa ceremony to sweeten the bitter drink, and again in the closing, so that the last prayer will be answered. Cane was also used in hana aloha (love magic). In one example, a lovesick person consulted the kahuna (priest or healer), who advised the eating of the pilimai and manulele sugar cane varieties. The yearning lover then blew in the direction of the beloved, trusting the god manifested as the wind to carry the love mana (spirit or power) along. Caressed by this sweet wind, the beloved would fall helplessly in love in return.