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.
Laukona is a tall perennial grass with green and white striped stalk and variegated green and white leaves.
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. For the most part the leaves are light green striped with white when young and pea green with yellow or orangish stripes when exposed to the sun.
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.