Uahiapele Sugar Cane

Ark of taste
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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.

Uahiapele (Saccharum officinarum v. Uahiapele) has a brownish-red, reddish-purple or purple stalk frosted with a white wax bloom and green leaves. Its name means “the smoke of Pele,” the Volcano goddess in Hawaiian mythology. The plant consists of a common root clump supporting several straight, 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, 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 shades of green but can also have shades of pale yellow, purple or pink. Sugarcane takes about two years from planting before it flowers. Most flowering occurs in November or December. The stalks are harvested at full maturity but before flowering, as the flowering process lowers the sugar content.

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.

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StateUnited States