While many people are aware of the extensive history of sugarcane in Hawai’i, fewer people recognize that the Hawaiians cultivated some 50-60 varieties of sugarcane prior to European arrival. The different varieties developed by the Hawaiians excelled in different habitats, vary considerably in their appearance, and also vary in their taste, sugar content and mineral quality.
Hālāli‘i is a green and yellow or light orange striped cane with slightly variegated leaves. It is said to be a tough cane, thriving in the most marginal of climates, and that it does not tassel freely.
The plant consists of a common root clump that supports several straight, typically unbranched stalks. The stalks range in height from 2 to 6 meters and have a disproportionately small diameter, typically 2 to 8 centimeters. The strong and rigid external part of the stalks protects the soft, juicy interior of the stalk from which sugar is extracted.
The leaves are generally smooth on the top and bottom, but like all grasses have serrated, saw-tooth edges that can irritate the skin and even cause cuts.
Unfortunately, with the advent of focused breeding programs aimed at maximizing monoculture production, the heirloom varieties developed by Hawaiian agriculturalists have been overshadowed by commercial hybrids, and many have already been lost to history. A core collection of about 30-40 known Hawaiian canes still exists through several small organizations devoted to Hawaiian ethnobotany. Although the remaining varieties are stable and cared for in several collections, they are not widespread outside of these collections.