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Sugar cane is a colorful and tasty garden addition

By Heidi Bornhorst

LAST UPDATED: 9:51 a.m. HST, Apr 21, 2011

Maybe we should grow some ko. That's the Hawaiian name for sugar cane.

Did you know that it's a canoe plant? Ko was carried here by the ancient seafaring Polynesians, who developed many wonderful and ono varieties here in Hawaii. They ate ko and used it in medicine. The leaves were used for thatch, and decorative braids for papale (hats) were made from the fibers.

Hawaiian varieties of ko are pretty, with different-colored stalks. I always think of food and eating first, but my expert flower-arranging friends love Hawaiian sugar canes for their boldly colored, shiny stalks and how they add a unique touch to tropical flower arrangements.

We don't see some of these Hawaiian ko anymore, and they are well worth growing. Some grow at the Honolulu Zoo and at Foster Botanical Garden. Maui Nui Botanical Gardens is another great place to see them if you live on or visit the Valley Isle.

One of my favorites is one called uahi a Pele, and it is from Niihau. The stalks are pretty: light, creamy yellow streaked with green and pink. The stalks are plump and juicy. If you've eaten a typical field sugar cane in the past, Hawaiian varieties are ono beyond compare.

Another great ko has a bold magenta cane with deep-green streaks. It was a gift to me from May Moir and was the favorite cane of her husband, W. Goodale Moir. He was famous for his orchid hybrids, but his day job was with the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association, so he knew his sugar cane.

My friend and fellow Tropical Aggie Sandi Baniaga was working for the sugar planters and called me because they were going to disband the collection of Hawaiian varieties of ko that they had grown for years up in Maunawili Valley.

We happily collected various rare, pretty and ono varieties and shared them along with collection data with Honolulu Botanical Gardens, Waimea Arboretum and the zoo. I was working as a zoo horticulturist at the time, and when we did landscape design we considered where the plant was from and whether it could be used to feed or entertain the animals.

Ko was perfect for redesigning the Asian elephant exhibition. Mari and Empress, the elephants at that time, and now Mari and Vaigai just love to munch on juicy sugar cane stalks.

So how do you grow ko? Cut the stalks in pieces about 2 to 3 feet long. Look for pieces that have "eyes" or "buds" -- little shoots that will grow. Soak them in very hot tap water for 15 minutes. Lay the pieces down in well-prepared soil in furrows. Water and soak well, watering daily.

The ko will grow and look like a grass. It is actually in the grass family Graminaceae and is called Saccharum officinarum by plant scientists. In six months to a year, you should have some nice, fat stalks. You can cut and eat them and save some pieces for replanting.

Ko plants also tell you when they are ready to harvest. They will flower, sending up a pretty cane tassel at the tip of the stalk. When you see this, it really is time to harvest, eat and replant the ko.

The ko is at its sweetest and juiciest right before it flowers. These flowers are also pretty in a vase.

Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst is a Hawaiian horticulturist, arborist, food gardener and sustainable landscape designer. Email her at heidib@hawaii.rr.com.

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