It wasn’t just about love. Ko had many uses in traditional Hawaiian culture, Lincoln says. Various canes were seen to have medicinal value for everything from infected sores to childbirth. In dry, windy Kohala, cane stands served as mist traps and windbreaks that watered and protected more fragile crops such as kalo. Red and purple canes such as the honua‘ula of Maui were used for spiritual purposes. Some ko were less productive but more tolerant of drought; some were adapted to surviving specific environments such as the sand dunes of Ni‘ihau.
Slim, tanned and youthful, Lincoln doesn’t look like one of the Islands’ premier experts on sugar cane, but the Native Hawaiian ethnobotanist has worked hard at becoming just that. He grew up on Maui looking at those endless fields of monochromatic commercial cane. In 2004 he began a three-year stint as the education coordinator at Amy Greenwell and encountered ko in all its glory.
“When I started working at the garden, I really became enamored with the ko,” he recalls, “and I guess it just grew from there.” Lincoln left the garden to pursue his doctorate at Stanford University; he’s now finishing his dissertation on the Kona field system. He’s working simultaneously on a book titled Ko: An Ethnobotanical Guide to Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. It’s the first effort in eighty years to classify and catalog the surviving varieties of Hawaiian ko.
“There’s a collection [of ko cultivars] on almost every island,” says Lincoln, “but the canes are all kind of mixed up. People were calling different canes by the same name, and the same cane by different names.” He estimates that there are some fifty to sixty surviving cultivars descended from those that the Polynesians first brought to the Islands.
Complicating his task of identification is the fact that there is a plethora of more recently introduced varieties, some of which have been around long enough to acquire Hawaiian names. Lincoln pauses, for instance, beside a clump of “Buddha belly” cane, which is called hapai (pregnant) in Hawaiian. Both names derive from its unusual appearance: Each segment of the yellow-to-purple stalk is swollen in the middle.
“From the viewpoint of most characteristics, it’s not a good cane,” Lincoln observes. “It’s short, it’s skinny, it’s not that sugary. But it’s extremely attractive and unique.”
To be considered a true Hawaiian ko, the cultivar must be descended from the “canoe plants” that the ancient Hawaiians brought to the Islands. Hapai came later, from Papua New Guinea—which, ironically, is where the Polynesians likely first picked up cane during their movement across the Pacific. Archeological evidence, Lincoln notes, pushes sugar cane’s history with humans in Papua back to around 8,000 BC, making it one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants.