Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
*Talo / Taro
*Pongi / Pongi & *Takataka / Takatakapō
Colocasia esculenta (Araceae)
PROTO POLYNESIAN *Talo, from PROTO AUSTRONESIAN *tales through Proto-Oceanic *talos
[See side panel for etymology of Pongi and Takatakapō]


Taro was an important staple food plant in Austronesia generally, although the reflexes of the Proto Malayo-Polynesian word reconstructed as *tales have fared better in some Indonesian languages rather than Philippine languages, and Eastern (rather than Western) Oceanic languages, than in the others, where they have been supplanted by local variants. Javanese has tales, for example, but Tagalog has gabi Nonetheless, the plant was an important staple food throughout the Philippines until the arrival of rice (probably between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries AD). The famous and spectacular rice terraces of the northern Philippines probably were developed from taro ponds after rice was introduced in that region about 400 years ago.

The Proto-Oceanic form, *talos, is strongly reflected in all Polynesian languages. There are numerous cultivated varieties of taro, and many of these were carried throughout Polynesia and new ones selected and propagated over the centuries. Each established variety has its own name; the term *talo and its modern reflexes denote the species in general.

The plant was brought to Aotearoa by the Polynesian settlers, and was widely cultivated. It required less care than the kumara, but was not as highly esteemed as that staple. In part that may have been because it simply didn't taste as good, as growing conditions in most districts would have been much less favourable than in the tropics, or perhaps varied in quality for other reasons. One of the scientists at the University of Hawaii's plant research centre in Kaua'i, which was responsible for saving many Hawaiian kalo (taro) varieties from extinction, told me that many years ago they had sampled two traditional Maori varieties which they had been given to add to their collection, and found them quite unpalatable no matter how they cooked them.

While there were were recommented days for planting (Elsdon Best notes these as the 17th, 18th and 28th (Orongonui) days of the lunar cycle -- The Maori, Vol. 2, p. 392), and recommended methods, neither the planting nor the harvest seems to have been attended by special rituals.

Nonetheless, in the first translations of the Christian scriptures the taro serves as a substitute for "bread", thus Jesus Christ is referred to as Te Taro o te Ora [The Bread of Life], and in the wording of the Lord's Prayer "our [daily] bread" becomes to mātou taro. It seems that, as with the kumara, most of the old varieties of taro were replaced by new, better flavoured or stronger-growing ones in the course of the vigorous international trade in which the Mäori engaged in the 1830s. However, many of the names were recorded, possibly two of which have cognates elsewhere in Polynesia. Only one of these, pongi, denotes a variety of taro in the other languages. The other, takatakapō (or takataka-a-pō), seems very doubtfully linked with the Proto Polynesian *takataka, but may be nonetheless as although the Samoan and Tongan cognates denote grass-like plants, the Fijian cognate denotes a climber with a fleshy root. A close relative of the Fijian plant was given the name uhi "yam" (among others) in Hawaii, probably because its roots were eaten as a famine food (Wagner et al., Handbook, p.1610). It is just possible that a memory of this type of plant and its earlier name was carried to Aotearoa and transferred to a taro variety.

According to Best's account, in Aotearoa the taro roots were planted in gravel four to a hole (some holes -- ipurangi -- were deep and others -- parua koau -- shallow), in rows two feel apart. They were not specially irrigated. In Hawaii, the plants intended for food are usually grown on mounds in special fields which are flooded with water diverted from a nearby stream or river and allowed to flow through them during the growing season. Ornamental varieties are grown as garden plants.

In Aotearoa cultivation of the taro declined markedly after the adoption of the potato, although some plants continued to grow wild in favourable situations. Peter Matthews notes that extensive taro plantations were in evidence in Northland and the East Coast of New Zealand in the early nineteenth century. It was also cultivated traditionally elsewhere in the North Island, and possibly also in some favourable environments in the South Island (On the Trail of the Taro, pp. 62-72). The government re-introduced taro to help avert starvation in Maori communities after World War I -- a Chinese variety was shipped to New Zealand via San Francisco, and widely grown in the North for some years, before once more being replaced by other crops. I was very disappointed to find out, when talking to a taro expert from Japan a few years ago, that the "Māori" taro I had been growing was in fact this Chinese variety.

There is a taro-like plant from South America which was among the "galleon plants" brought into the Pacific by Spanish and Portugese navigators. This is Xanthosoma sagittifolium, found throught the Philippines and much of Southeast Asia, as well as the tropical Pacific Islands, in the form of green and purple cultivars. Both of these are illustrated in the gallery on this page. Neither of these are true taro, but they are loosely referred to by this word, usually followed by a descriptive term, in Tongan and some other Polynesian languages. One Tongan term is talo hina; others (some denoting different cultivars) are taro futuna, taro tea, taro kula and taro tofua. In East Futuna and Niue it is talo fiti, in Mele (Vanuatu) taro fījī, and in East Uvea talo fisi (all meaning "Fijian taro", where "Fijian" is probably a synonym for "exotic" or "foreign", as with talo palagi in Tokelau). Like Colocasia esculenta, the Xanthosoma cultivars have edible leaves and tubers.

PPN: *talo (Colocasia esculenta [Araceae]).

Tongan: talo (Colocasia esculenta; also, with qualifiers, Xanthosoma sagittifolium [Araceae]).
Niuean: talo (C. esculenta), talo fiti (X. sagittifolium)
Samoan: talo (C. esculenta)
Rapanui: taro (C. esculenta)
Tahitian: taro (C. esculenta)
Marquesan: ta'o (C. esculenta)
Hawaiian: kalo (C. esculenta)
Tuamotuan: taro (C. esculenta)
Rarotongan: taro (C. esculenta); taro taruā (X. sagittifolium)
Maori: taro (C. esculenta)

As with Tongan, the word taro is used in Tokelau, Niue, Rarotonga and some other Polynesian languages, usually in combination with other terms, to denote the more recently introduced aroid Xanthosoma sagittifolium. (More information about this below, left.)

Taro Taro from abandoned Te Kawerau settlement near Auckland (Te Māra Reo)

KaloMana uliuli var. of taro, Limahuli National Botanical Garden, Kaua'i

PPN: *pongi (A dark variety of Colocasia esculenta [Araceae])

Niuean: Pongi (C. esculenta var.)
Marquesan: Poki (red variety of C. esculenta)
Hawaiian: Poni (purple varieties of C. esculenta, Ipomoea batatas [kumara] and Dioscorea alata [yam])
Maori: Pongi (dark variety of C. esculenta; also dark variety of Ipomoea batatas [kumara])

PCP: *takataka (Smilax vitiensis [Smilaceae]" )
PPN: *takataka ("A kind of grass [or grass-like plant]" )

Tongan: takataka (Fimbristylis autumnalis [Cyperaceae])
Samoan: ta'ata'a (Eleusine sp. [Gramineae])
Maori: takatakapō (C. esculenta var.)

Because the taro was such an important plant, distinctive varieties were cultivated and named, and there was a special vocabulary for parts of the plant. The latter included these terms:

whā or raupaka - the leaf
whāwhā - the petiole (leaf-stalk)
ngāue - dark edges to the sheathing stalk

Apart from the heritage names mentioned above (pongi and takatakapö), there are about 30 other varietal names listed in the Williams Dictionary. A few of these are presented with additional information:

akarewa - purplish variety
kākātarahae - large variety with red leaf stalks
kinakina - "an inferior variety" - maybe one of those sent to Hawaii?
kōareare - a variety with running roots (also the name of a small tree, Pseudopanax edgerleyi)
kohuorangi - a small red variety (also kohurangi, kokohurangi, kohuhurangi, kohukohurangi)
makatiti - variety with pale green leaves
hoia - a large-leaved variety (I was told many years ago that this variety was so named because it was brought to New Zealand by soldiers [hōia] returning from the First World War.)

The others mentioned by Williams are: awanga (also the name of the southwest wind, and a variety of harakeke); hanina; haukopa; whakahekerangi; kauere (also the name of the tree Vitex lucens [puriri] and a plant and seaweed used for scenting oils); mamaku (also the name of the tree fern Cyathea medullaris); maori (also a kumara and a [post-1769] potato variety); makatiti ~ matatiti; paeangaanga; pātai; pehu (also a name for varieties of kumara and harakeke); pōtango (also a harakeke variety); tanae; tautaumahei; whakatauare; tokotokohau; turitaka; upokotiketike; wairuaärangi.

The gallery below shows taro ponds, fields, and plants in various locations in Hawai'i, the Philippines, Samoa, and Te Māra Reo, including pictures of cultivars of the taro-like aroid Xanthosoma sagittifolium. Can you spot the difference between the structure of the leaves of the true taro (Colocasia) and the South American "taro" (Xanthosoma)? It's an easy way to tell them apart. (The answer is in the "News" for February 2016.)

Other taro-like plants, often referred to generically as "taro", but with distinctive names in the countries where they are cultivated, are the giant swamp taro Cyrtosperma merkusii (Araceae), and another taro-like aroid, Alocasia macrorrhizos, both of which are "canoe plants", carried into and through Polynesia from elsewhere in Oceania in the early stages of settlement.

Kalo Kalo (Taro) ponds, Hanalei Valley, Kaua'í, Hawai'i

Kalo Kalo (Taro) pond, Hanalei Valley

Kalo Cultivated Taro, Hanalei Valley, Kauai'i

Gagi Wild "Taro" (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), Tupi, South Cotabato, Mindanao, Philippines

Gabi-Banaue "Taro" (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) cultivated on roadside, Banaue, Mountain Province, Luzon, Philippines

Kalo-Honolulu "Canoe Plants" - Kalo (Taro), Kï (Tï), 'ohe (Kohe - Bamboo) & Mai'a (Maika - Banana), Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu

Taro-Baguio Taro cultivated in ponds, Baguio, Philippines

Taro ponds Taro ponds showing water flow, Limahuli, Kaua'i, Hawai'i

Taro-Baguio Taro growing in home garden, Vailele, Samoa

Taro-Baguio Taro sellers with produce opposite main bus station, Apia, Samoa, 2014

Taro-Baguio Taro hoia, Te Māra Reo

Taro-TMR Giant (Samoan ?) "Taro" (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), Te Māra Reo

Taro-Baguio Ornamental taro, Wahiawa, Honolulu

Wild taro Wild taro, Nu'uanu Stream, Honolulu

Further information: There is a wealth of information about Taro, in Aotearoa and internationally, in Peter Mathews' book On the Trail of Taro (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2014). The Nga Taro o Aotearoa website has interesting notes and links about taro in New Zealand and overseas: http://www.taro.co.nz/ . There is a Hawaiian account of the origin of taro on the "earthfoot" website, which underlines the importance of this plant in Hawaiian culture: http://www.earthfoot.org/lit_zone/taro.htm. Te Ara / The Encyclopedia of New Zealand has a web page with some further references to the kumara in pre-19th century Maori life. The replacement of taro by rice as a staple in the Philippines is discussed in the publications by Stephen Acabado and associates listed in the bibliography.
Photographs: R.B.

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License