May 30, 2024

University of Hawaii assistant professor Noa Kekuewa Lincoln examines a bundle of a Hawaiian sugarcane that has a rich rhubarb-like color. He’s on a quest to document and preserve Hawaii’s heritage sugarcanes. Photograph: Megan Spelman/The Guardian

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln remembers when he first encountered unique Hawaiian sugarcane varieties in 2004. The fresh stalks, bursting with color, might have sprouted from Willy Wonka’s imagination, not the soil.

Lincoln, a kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) expert in Indigenous cropping systems and an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, said: “I grew up seeing grayish-green cane fields. But these canes are fluorescent pink, bright apple-green striped. They looked like huge cartoon candy canes. They almost don’t look real!”

That chance moment took Lincoln on a 20-year detour into researching Hawaii’s heirloom and native sugarcane varieties, neglected after centuries of plantation monoculture. Lincoln set out to identify native sugarcanes that existed before western contact and also heirloom canes, which have been growing in Hawaii for centuries. The point is, he said, to “treat them like the individuals they are”.

He likens his research method to traditional navigation, “where you’re triangulating your position” in relation to known points. He interviews kupuna, or elders, in the Hawaiian community; dives into digitized archives of newspapers dating back to the 1830s; and culls information from stories, traditional medicines and chants.

Agricultural laborers on an early 20th-century sugarcane plantation in Hawaii. Photograph: Alamy

A chant can offer information about how a sugarcane variety looks, where and how it grows, and its role in the ecosystem. A 19th-century chant celebrating a dignitary’s visit to Ni’ihau island is one example: “My love returns to Ni’ihau / To the hidden waters of the pao’o fish / To the breadfruit that blossoms on the flats / The sugar cane of Halali’i dug out by hand.” It gives a location (Hawaii’s westernmost island), a name for the cane variety (Halali’i) dominant there, a tip on tending the plant and its proximity to breadfruit.

Lincoln marries these sources with modern tools like DNA analysis to see relationships between varieties of sugarcane. “For cane, some of the interpretations of the chants [and oral histories] only become clear when we are out in the field doing work and observe something that helps with the interpretation. It is very rarely just one line of knowledge that helps us understand, but multiple lines of knowledge intersect,” he said.

In one case, an elder said that a particular variety of sugarcane “called” dew from the north. Lincoln only grasped the full meaning of that statement when working with sugarcane in Kona. There, he realized that the crop cast tall shadows that preserved dew on the north side of its rows. And that substantially elevated soil moisture.

Through this research, he’s uncovered 25 Hawaiian sugarcane, or , varieties. Halali‘i is one such variety. The name means “little hala”, or pandanus, a tree ubiquitous in the islands. Growing on windy Ni’ihau island, this sugarcane variety is frequently buried in sand so that only its top shows, resembling a small hala tree. Its other names mark how its leaves resemble sea lettuce, an edible green alga.

Lincoln and students in his University of Hawaii lab try to identify old varieties of sugarcane lost when plantations cultivated a dominant variety. Photograph: Megan Spelman/The Guardian

Many Hawaiian sugarcane varieties also share names with native fish. If the cane and the fish share similar striations or some other commonality, Hawaiians gave them the shared moniker. The black surgeonfish, common in Hawaiian reefs, and dark purple-black canes found on Kauai are both māikoiko. Maka’ā means “glowing eye” and refers to the flagtail tilefish. It possesses bright blue eyes and gray-green stripes, like an extinct sugarcane with similar gray-green stripes.

Sugarcane was originally domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 BC and brought to Hawaii as one of Polynesian voyagers’ original “canoe plants”, critical species that form the core of Hawaiian agriculture and foodways. The ancient islanders put sugarcane to various uses. Sugarcane windbreaks decrease wind damage to root crops and maintain soil moisture. Local sugarcanes provide mulch and attract nitrogen and nutrients into the soil. With those natural enhancements, Hawaiians were able to grow bigger and better sweet potatoes and taro alongside sugarcane, which itself adapted into new varieties suited to its new environs.

Though Native Hawaiians introduced sugarcane to the islands nearly a millennium before Europeans arrived, that fact often gets overshadowed in histories that focus on the impact and influence of sugarcane plantations that dominated the islands from the early 1800s onward.

Lincoln suspects that there are even more varieties, as his lab has uncovered about 80 names of traditional Hawaiian types. Try as his team might, they’re unable to connect all of them to existing plants due to the colonial erasure of both traditional knowledge and crops. By the 1840s, sugar was big business in Hawaii, and an 1875 treaty permitted Hawaii to sell sugar to the United States without having to pay taxes or duties, guaranteeing great profit and power for its planter class.

Today, Lincoln finds an ally in a businessman who worked in Hawaii’s once-robust sugarcane sector. Bob Gunter, president and CEO of Kōloa Rum Company, worked with Amfac, considered one of Hawaii’s “big five” sugar businesses, and its Lihue plantation, one of the earliest and longest-running sugarcane operations. It closed in 2000.

Amber-colored Kō Hana Hawaiian agricole rum at the distillery’s tasting room in Kunia, Hawaii. Photograph: John D Ivanko/Alamy

Gunter said: “Hawaii was world renowned for its high-quality sugar and the concentration of its sugar. It produced tons of sugar per acre – quantities unheard of in other countries. But the trouble is that it couldn’t compete with countries that heavily subsidize sugar or don’t pay their labor well. It wasn’t a level playing field.” Kōloa, which produces its rum from granulated cane sugar, had purchased tons of the ingredient from Hawaii’s plantations as they announced their closures. But eventually the rum maker had no alternative but to buy sugar from east Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

Now a nascent industry is helping resurrect heirloom sugarcane. Agricole rum is distilled from freshly pressed sugarcane juice, as opposed to molasses or granulated sugar. Kōloa and two other makers, Kuleana Rum Works and Kō Hana, consulted with Lincoln and now grow about 40 varieties of sugarcane that existed before western contact. Kuleana has been bottling and selling agricole rum since 2009 and Kō Hana started in 2009 as a farm, releasing its first agricole-style rum in 2014.

Gunter’s company plans to make rum from these heirloom canes, but production was delayed by the pandemic. “We’re preserving it, keeping a bank of sugarcane varieties, to perpetuate them, making sure we don’t lose them,” he said. “We’re currently at four acres and expanding to 10 to 12 acres of native cane.”

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln savors the sweetness of sugarcane on the campus of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Photograph: Megan Spelman/The Guardian

Lincoln attributes this renewed interest in to two movements: a larger one to reclaim Native Hawaiian identity, culture and cultivation practices, and the craft beverage movement, propelled by local distillers who see the use of heirloom Hawaiian canes as good marketing. “We can confidently say that more heirloom cane is being grown in Hawaii now than at any time in the past century,” he wrote in a 2022 article.

Still, Lincoln acknowledges the tension between economic and biocultural values of heirloom Hawaiian cane. On the one hand, businesses can appropriate Hawaiian knowledge and stories. Yet the fledgling rum agricole business “has provided new opportunities for preservation, dissemination and observations of the Hawaiian canes, as well as new platforms for sharing of indigenous perspectives”, he wrote in that same article. For example, when commercial producers grow large quantities of single varieties, scientists can better detect mutations within those varieties.

There is also a clear benefit to rum aficionados. Juice from heirloom sugarcanes can produce very different, fragrant rums. Lincoln said: “You wouldn’t dream of drinking a wine and not knowing what grape it came from.” Perhaps one day, more of us will sip Hawaiian rums and taste their distinct nuances.

The headline, subheading and text of this article were amended on 25 April 2024 to clarify the different types of “native” and “heirloom” sugarcane.

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