Learning about ancient Kona agriculture


Polynesian agriculture reached its peak of development centuries ago in Kona. Several books shed light on these marvelous dryland gardens of the past. Two of them are specific to Kona and two place the Kona field system within the larger context of Hawaiian settlement and agriculture.

“Native Planters in Old Hawaii,” by Craighill Handy, Elizabeth Handy and Mary Kawena Pukui, is the best-known of these books. Originally published in 1972, and revised in 1991, the book is thick and thorough. More than 100 pages are dedicated to Hawaii Island. Most of that is devoted to Ka‘u, undoubtedly because Ka‘u native Pukui was a collaborator. Kona has six pages, but they are brilliantly written and encompass the ancient myths through the 1930s.

“No Mala O Kona: Gardens of Kona,” by Marion Kelly, chronicles how the Great Mahele of 1840 denied farmers the lands they had been gardening for generations. On average, the farmers received less than 2 acres of land — including their houseplot — on which to subsist. Many were denied their productive mauka gardens. Kelly’s remarkable book is much more than a sob story. It is filled with detailed maps, photographs and genealogies, and explains intricacies of Kona agriculture in pre- and post-contact times.

“Gardens of Lono,” edited by Melinda Allen, is a collection of papers about archeological investigations at the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden. The most readable and fascinating article is “An Agricultural History of Kealakekua” by Maurice Major. Much of the book is as dry as the land it is written about; it is the nature of technical archeological writing. One of the contributors, Patrick Kirch, purposely set out to help reader’s slog through such writing.

Kirch is a Hawaii-born researcher whose latest book, “A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawaii,” is written with a smooth style and dramatic flair. The title is the first line of a chant celebrating the shark-like power of the alii. The book chronicles the rise of this divinely descended alii class and other changes that, century by century, took Hawaii from traditional chiefdoms to the emergence of a sprawling state similar to the early civilizations of Mesoamerica and Egypt.

Throughout the book, Kirch tells two stories. One is the story of pollen grains, stones and artifacts, of Polynesian languages and the Hawaiians’ oral moolelo and the haoles’ journals, and of the scholars and scientists who have built from them our understanding of the islands’ history. The second story is that history itself, beginning with a tale of the first voyage of settlement. The new Hawaiians settled in the wet, windward valleys, found largely on Kauai and Oahu, which most reminded them of home.

The center of population and power in the islands shifted from wet Kauai and Oahu to the larger islands of Maui and Hawaii, beginning in the 14th century as dryland farming took hold on the leeward slopes. Profound social shifts were also under way. The word makaainana comes from a Polynesian word referring to the landholding kinship groups into which the first settlers were organized. It came to mean just “commoner,” a population shorn of its genealogies and the associated land rights as the alii increasingly felt themselves less kin to the commoners than to the gods.

Kirch gives accounts of his own research, including that on the rise of the ruler Umi of Waipio, unifier of the island, and on the Kohala, Kona and Ka‘u dryland field system that Umi sponsored. He continues the tale through Kamehameha’s ascendance, and Capt. James Cook’s deification as Lono, the god of rain and dryland agriculture.

By the early 1400s, the Hawaiian farmers had begun moving onto previously unoccupied lands on the leeward slopes. There they found rich soils that had not had the fertility leached out by heavy rains. The areas of highest productivity had relativity young soils and rainfall between 30 and 60 inches.

“A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief” is a text of fundamental and enduring importance, especially for the lay reader. It deserves a place in the library of everyone who cares about this island.

Clear Englebert is a local author and feng shui consultant whose latest book is “Feng Shui for Hawaii Gardens.”

Tropical gardening helpline

Dale asks: Some triangular green insects accompanied by some small brown “monsters” seem to be attacking the stems of my pepper plants. Who are they and how do I get rid of them?

Answer: The monsters are the larval or nymph stage of the keeled tree hopper, Antianthe expansa. They are known locally as the Solanaceous tree hopper because they usually attack plants in the Solanaceae family, including tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. An infestation can completely kill a young plant; it is important to get rid of them.

If the infestation is small, you can rub them out by rubbing them off. The nymphs are wingless and soft bodied so you can incur quite a bit of damage or death by rubbing the infested stems with a gloved hand. You can also dislodge them with a blast from a water hose.

The adult tree hopper is green and triangular in shape and has small sharp horns next to its eyes. They can hop quickly or fly away; you need to be fast to get them. Their horns are sharp, so gloves are necessary. Be sure to get rid of them, as they will deposit eggs in the stems of the plants for the next generation.

A combination of soap and oil that is sprayed onto the plant and contacts them directly should kill both the adult and the nymph. Insecticidal soap and neem oil mixed according to instructions should work well.

Pyrethrins also kill on contact. Since they are often found on vegetable plants, systemic chemical pesticides are not recommended. To avoid problems, choose insecticides that are specified for the target plant and pest you are dealing with.

Email plant questions to konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu for answers by certified master gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.

This column is produced by Diana Duff.