Dalo (Colocasia esculenta)

Dalo (Colocasia esculenta)

There are 125 varieties of Colocasia esculenta, or dalo known in the Fiji Islands, of which at least 70 were grown and consumed by Fijians before the arrival of other settlers and the before commercialisation of the root crop.

Also known as: Taro

Local Names: Dalo, Vavai dina, Vavai Loa, Samoa vula, Samoa loa, Vutikoto, Sakavi damu, Sakavi loa

Description

There are 125 varieties of Colocasia esculenta, or dalo known in the Fiji Islands, of which at least 70 were grown and consumed by Fijians before the arrival of other settlers and the before commercialisation of the root crop. Although they have different names and some minor differences, these varieties have the same basic morphology, and may appear to the untrained eye to be just one plant. The dalo plant is a perennial herb. The leaves all have a heart shape, and arise from the corm, which is underground. Some varieties of this plant may grow up to almost 2m in height. The colour of the stem varies, ranging from a dark purple to an off-white colour depending on the variety.

Distribution

Both modern and traditional varieties of dalo are found all over Fiji, in both rural and urban areas. The 70 varities of this plant that were grown traditionally (traditional varieties) can only be found in traditional and non-commercial gardens of Fiji (this is possibly also the same for the other islands in the South Pacific). The modern varieties (hybrids) such as Maleka dina and Warasa dominate Fiji’s farms, particularly the exporting farms. Of the 125 known varieties of dalo, 79 are grown and stored at the Koronivia Research Station Germplasm bank fields.

Habitat Ecology and Behaviour

The traditional varieties of dalo can be grown in alluvial soils, on hill slopes, and even in soil less fertile than those recommended for commercial hybrids. There are two types of dalo: the wetland and the dry land dalo. Both require a good drainage system to produce a good yield. Unlike the now common and commercialized hybrids which take seven months to mature, the traditional varieties take nine to ten months. Traditionally, dalo was planted between the months of April and May. Dalo planted at this time yields larger and tastier dalo than those planted outside of these two months. The dalo plant is propagated vegetatively, by either transplanting the suckers or replanting the mother plant.

 Dalo (Colocasia esculenta)

Dalo (Colocasia esculenta)

 Reinstating ancient terrace for wetland dalo in Navosa. Photo: T.King/VNV

Reinstating ancient terrace for wetland dalo in Navosa. Photo: T.King/VNV

Threats

There are two main threats to the survival of the traditional varieties of dalo in Fiji: commercialisation and the taro leaf blight. The commercialisation of dalo began in Fiji around the 1950s. Since then, with increasing demand from both the local and overseas market, the Agronomy Section of the Fiji Agriculture Department along with many other agricultural research bodies prioritised research into increasing the production yield of these crops. Now, there are many other varieties and hybrids of dalo, most of which take only seven months to mature, and have a higher yield. As a result, there has been a significant shift towards the hybrids from the traditional varieities, with almost all dalo farmers growing only the Tausala variety. This shift has meant a loss and continued loss of the traditional varieties which were bigger and tastier, but unfortunately, much slower growers. In addition to this, there is no other farm outside of the Koronivia Research Station Germplasm Bank Field that grows these varieties for conservation purposes. Even more disconcerting is the fact that should the traditional varieties of dalo growing in the fields at the Koronivia Research Station be damaged by disease, insects or natural disasters, there is probably a slim chance of ever retrieving these varieties. The reason being that Fiji’s only tissue culture lab, which is located at the Koronivia Research Station and which is supposed to store all the tissue culture, and genetic varieties of Fiji’s crops has been poorly maintained despite its critical role in the conservation of Fiji’s traditional and commercial crops.

The second threat to Fiji’s dalo varieties is the taro beetle Papuana uninodis. The taro beetle was first recorded in Fiji from Veisari in Lami and since then has spread throughout Viti Levu, and onto Ovalau. Fortunately, it is not found on any of the other major dalo growing islands in Fiji where many of the traditional varieties may be found.

Conservation Status

Because of the pressure to meet consumer demands, dalo farmers are phasing out from the traditional varieties in favour of the new hybrids. The on-going loss of traditional Fijian varieties of dalo is a loss of cultural heritage which receives little attention from conservationists and government alike. This is compounded by a lack of awareness amongst Fijians of the significance of the on-going loss of traditional varieties of important food crops. There is no known effort to conserve the traditional varieties of crops in traditional gardens outside of the Koronivia Research Station’s Germplasm fieldbank. While the field conservation of the different varieties has been ongoing since the 1970s, and appears to be successful at the Koronivia Research Station, the in-vitro (laboratory) conservation has not had as much success. One of the contributing factors to this is the lack of funding for appropriate lab equipment and limited qualified personnel to maintain the lab. Additionally, a threat to the field conservation of the dalo varieties is the loss of personnel who have had at least 30 years of experience in the field of Agronomy. Because there is limited documentation of the knowledge these personnel have, their knowledge of the traditional crops goes with them when they retire from the Fiji Agriculture Department. Documented traditional knowledge is also limited. Most farmers that had grown the traditional varieties and still know the traditional methods of growing dalo are getting older. If their knowledge is not documented or not passed onto the next generation (which may not happen because of the shift towards the commercial crop varieties), then our knowledge of traditional dalo varieties is lost, and our future generations may never have the opportunity to taste such a chiefly crop.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) through their Crop Production Area of Focus is in collaboration with Plant Genetic Resources, conducting research into maintaining the traditional crop materials through establishing gene banks.

Veitokonivuci is a non-governmental organisation that is now committed to using traditional methods of growing dalo within the province of Serua. Their research is still in its infant stages and their results should provide some important lessons to learn about traditional dalo planting.

The island of Kadavu is probably the only island in Fiji that still practices the traditional method of growing dalo on a large scale. This traditional method is more suitable for traditional varieties of dalo which are wetland taro; and is called laua – which are irrigated pondfields. Researchers have suggested that the use of laua in Kadavu is probably still prominent because of the isolation of the island from the commercial demands of Viti Levu and the associated costs.

Remarks and Cultural Significance

Because of the pressure to meet consumer demands, dalo farmers are phasing out from the traditional varieties in favour of the new hybrids. The on-going loss of traditional Fijian varieties of dalo is a loss of cultural heritage which receives little attention from conservationists and government alike. This is compounded by a lack of awareness amongst Fijians of the significance of the on-going loss of traditional varieties of important food crops. There is no known effort to conserve the traditional varieties of crops in traditional gardens outside of the Koronivia Research Station’s Germplasm fieldbank. While the field conservation of the different varieties has been ongoing since the 1970s, and appears to be successful at the Koronivia Research Station, the in-vitro (laboratory) conservation has not had as much success. One of the contributing factors to this is the lack of funding for appropriate lab equipment and limited qualified personnel to maintain the lab. Additionally, a threat to the field conservation of the dalo varieties is the loss of personnel who have had at least 30 years of experience in the field of Agronomy. Because there is limited documentation of the knowledge these personnel have, their knowledge of the traditional crops goes with them when they retire from the Fiji Agriculture Department. Documented traditional knowledge is also limited. Most farmers that had grown the traditional varieties and still know the traditional methods of growing dalo are getting older. If their knowledge is not documented or not passed onto the next generation (which may not happen because of the shift towards the commercial crop varieties), then our knowledge of traditional dalo varieties is lost, and our future generations may never have the opportunity to taste such a chiefly crop.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) through their ‘Crop Production’ Area of Focus is in collaboration with Plant Genetic Resources, conducting research into maintaining the traditional crop materials through establishing gene banks.

Veitokonivuci is a non-governmental organisation that is now committed to using traditional methods of growing dalo within the province of Serua. Their research is still in its infant stages and their results should provide some important lessons to learn about traditional dalo planting.

The island of Kadavu is probably the only island in Fiji that still practices the traditional method of growing dalo on a large scale. This traditional method is more suitable for traditional varieties of dalo which are wetland taro; and is called laua – which are irrigated pondfields. Researchers have suggested that the use of laua in Kadavu is probably still prominent because of the isolation of the island from the commercial demands of Viti Levu and the associated costs.

References

Agricultural Commodities Committee (1985);
Bitu, M (personal communication);
Kuhlken (1993, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2007);
Kuhlken and Crosby (1999);
Lambert (1982);
Osea of Koronivia Research Station (personal communication);
Seru, V (personal communication);
Thomson (2006).

Front Page Photo: Nunia Thomas