Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photo by Raven Hanna
April is a perfect time to get muddy on Maui. Each spring, during the East Maui Taro Festival, taro farmers invite guests to help harvest the starchy corms. Visiting a kalo loi (taro patch) is a sensory experience. Cool stream water trickles through the terraced enclosures. Fat frogs squat in the shade. Dragonflies dart above heart-shaped taro leaves. While wresting your root from its watery bed, you might inhale a sweet, unfamiliar scent—the perfume of the pua kalo (taro flower).
“The fragrance . . . oh my gosh,” says Anna Palomino, owner of Hoolawa Farms in Haiku. “It just takes me away.”
Ancient Hawaiians knew these uncommon blooms intimately. The bygone botanists painstakingly extracted the flowers’ miniscule seeds to cross-pollinate plants. They cultivated 400-plus varieties of taro, their staple food. Some cultivars were best steamed; others perfect for poi. Still others were grown for their edible leaves, or the dye extracted from their stems. Fewer than ninety of these varieties remain, and not many farmers, if any, grow taro from seed. Instead, they propagate plants from ha, the shoots that sprout up alongside corms.
Palomino, a self-described “seed freak,” once tried cultivating taro the traditional way. “The seeds are very small and sticky, covered with a pulp,” she says, confessing a fresh admiration for ancient Hawaiian expertise. “Fascinating, the patience it took to grow plants out to get those characteristics . . . it required great observational skills as well.”
While the art of taro hybridization has fallen fallow, flowers still bloom in the loi, typically in late spring or summer. But be forewarned: not everyone admires their fragrance. One farmer compared it to horse urine!
“They must’ve been growing junk kalo,” says John Lind of Kapahu Living Farm. He’s one of the taro festival’s regular hosts. When his “mana lauloa” variety flowers, “it smells sweet, sweet, sweet.”
Get a whiff at the East Maui Taro Festival, April 21 and 22 in Hana.