Saccharum officinarum, sugar cane
Maui is in an interesting place right now, as the waving fields of cane and the business of sugar are poised to become history. Many people assume that Maui’s vast green acres of kō began with the cane brought to Hawai‘i by Polynesians, but this commercial cane is a western hybrid, homogenous and hardy. The many varieties of sugar cane grown by Hawaiians were softer, the insides easier to chew, and usually found planted around gardens as an edible, beautiful windbreak. Stems were 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 tastes of bitter medicines and harnessed the body’s rapid metabolic absorption of sugar to catalyze those medicines and get them quickly into the bloodstream.
The outsides of cane stalks are sharp, like bamboo (also an Asian grass), and so could be carved into arrows for the popular sport of pana‘iole — shooting rats. The long leaves could be 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, as a valuable place in the voyaging canoes was earned by a plant’s multifaceted uses. Kō means “fulfilled,” and as a kinolau of the god Kāne, is used in the ‘awa ceremony. Kō sweetens the bitter drink, and is used again in the closing, so that the last prayer will be, well, fulfilled. Sugar 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 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.