Sunday, May 27, 2001

The corm of the pakala taro, one of three varieties
developed by Eduardo Trujillo.

UH scientist
roots out a
bigger, better taro

Disease resistance, flavor
and size were all factors
in breeding the Pacific
food staple

By Lyn Danninger

Eduardo Trujillo guards his taro plants jealously, almost as if he's expecting an attack.

The secrecy is necessary, the University of Hawaii professor said, because the three new varieties of taro he developed are still waiting final patent approval, and they have the potential to dramatically increase production of the food staple.

Trujillo, a professor of plant pathology at UH-Manoa's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, has been at work on the new varieties for about four years. The university has spent about $300,000 on development so far.

Trujillo is convinced that if successfully cultivated on a large scale, the new taro varieties could bring major improvements to the lives of many Pacific islanders who depend on taro as the staple starch in their diets.

The new taro cultivars can also out-produce the most common local forms of taro grown in Hawaii, the lehua family, either in its most common Hawaii setting, the wet-land growing system or the dry upland system favored in other Pacific islands, such as Samoa.

"For islanders, any of these lines will out yield whatever they grow now," Trujillo said. "It produces at least one pound extra per plant in the wetland system and almost 3 pounds extra in the dry system compared to lehua."

Eduardo Trujillo of the University of Hawaii holds a large taro
corm from one of the three varieties of the plant he has
developed. Once patents have been approved, he hopes to
sell the plants to local farmers.

Farmers would reap about 7,000 more pounds of taro per acre with the new plant over the most common varieties grown in Hawaii. The yield would rise to about 27,000 pounds per acre from about 20,000 for the lehua variety, depending upon the amount planted.

Trujillo's taro plants, called pa'akala, pauakea and pa'lehua, not only have a higher yield, but mature earlier, are more disease resistant and have a longer shelf life, thereby reducing post-harvest storage losses.

Trujillo selected the final three varieties after hundreds of experiments and crosses between Hawaiian and Micronesian taro.

Trujillo said he chose a Micronesian taro from the island of Palau for its resistance to the taro leaf blight fungus, a disease that wiped out the entire taro crop in American Samoa in 1993 and is a constant problem for taro growers elsewhere in the Pacific.

"(American Samoa's) crop was completely destroyed," he said. "Their annual production was around 47,000 metric tons. It took years to recover."

Today, the more disease-resistant Micronesian variety of taro is grown in American Samoa. But the Polynesian taste just isn't there, Trujillo said.

He says his new super taro combines the resistance of the Micronesian taro with the taste of Polynesian taro.

In time, Trujillo envisions that the palehua variety of taro, which is the favored purple color and considered the crown jewel of the three varieties, could be used to create Hawaii's own gourmet poi.

With fewer disease problems to contend with, it has a better taste, Trujillo says.

The other two new varieties, the pauakea and pa'akala, pale yellow and pink in color, are better used for flour or processed foods such as chips and french fries, he said.

All varieties can be successfully grown in either wet- or dry-land settings, he says.

Six Hawaii farmers have signed on this year to begin growing test patches of the new taro, Trujillo said. But with only a few cultivars, or hulis, planted at a time, mature crops on a large scale will take a while.



Statewide taro production and pricing have climbed slowly, but fairly steadily for the last five years.

Year Pounds*
Farm Price**
(cents per pound)
Acres in
poi taro
Value in sales
1996 5.7 49 350 $2.7
1997 5.5 51 370 $2.8
1998 6 53 400 $3.1
1999 6.8 53 420 $3.6
2000 7 53 430 $3.7

* Includes both fresh and processed
**Includes both Poi taro and Chinese taro
Source: Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service

"It would take about three years and about 7,500 plants to grow an acre of taro," he said.

The first farmer to grow the new taro began two years ago. He is already licensed to sell the crop commercially and recently harvested his first small-scale crop of pa'lehua. Early results are positive, Trujillo said. "So far, all the Hawaiians who've tasted it like it."

But farmers and the public, long attached to their favorite varieties of lehua taro, will also have to embrace the idea before more of the new taro becomes widely available.

Grace Kupuka'a and her husband, Willy, grow several varieties of taro on about five acres of land in Kahaluu. Taro farming has been in the family for generations.

Kupuka'a said she thinks farmers would be open to at least try the new type of taro.

"I think all farmers, at least those that are serious, would be willing to try it," she said.

Craig Walsh, president of The Poi Co., says there is a need for more locally grown taro.

"The more we can buy consistently, the better," said Walsh, whose company is the largest poi producer in the state. "All poi companies are scrambling for taro."

Walsh would also like people to be more receptive to trying different kinds of taro for poi.

"We've all been brainwashed into wanting purple poi," Walsh said. Other varieties are just as tasty, he said, but so far haven't passed local muster because of their pink color.

Trujillo said he would eventually like other South Pacific islands to try growing his taro. But until issues such as ownership and royalties could be resolved, they will continue to be grown exclusively in Hawaii.

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