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Samoan Material Culture

Cultivable Food Plants

Cultivable Food Plants

The yam (ufi, Dioscorea sp.) formed the first crop in newly prepared cultivations. The plants were grown from seed tubers which were planted close to the trunks of the trees left standing or besides large branches to give the vines support as they spread. The yams are easily damaged by bruising in transport or planting and do not recover from rough handling as the talo does. The yam crop was thus uncertain and often failed. Owing to this greater uncertainty and the greater care needed, it is not now grown so extensively as in former times when people were more careful in utilising all their available material. The easily procurable flour and bread has provided a substitute that has led to less activity in certain directions. The spreading vines of the yam are termed tolo.

One of the numerous Sina married the king of Fiji. Her brother Pili went to visit her but hid in the bush being evidently doubtful of his brother-in-law. He asked the birds and trees how he could get a meeting with his sister. The palai yam offered his services and sent one of his tolo vines to Sina's door. As Sina came out, her foot caught in the vine. At that time there was a shortage of food in Fiji so Sina followed along the vine to find the tuber. There she found her brother. The palai yam is very long. Sina broke off a piece and returned home. Every day she returned to meet her brother and broke off another piece of yam. (A yam broken off is termed matanau.) As she had followed up (tuli) the broken-off tuber, the tuber was called tuli matanau Hence repeated attempts at meetings or consultations to effect unity is referred to as, "Tuli matanau, le ufi o Sina" (Tuli matanau, the yam of Sina).

Yams are to be seen growing wild in old cultivations. In times of scardly, they are sought after. The season for planting is June, July, and August.

The talo (Colocasia antiquorum) was the staple crop of Samoa. Various kinds are distinguished by names. The following five were enumerated at Tanga, Savaii, but there are many more names known in other parts.

  • Talo manu'a, from Manua.
  • Talo niue, from Niue Island.
  • Talo mangasiva, the best kind used for chiefs.
  • Talo tanga, a local variety.
  • Talo pula'au, also a local variety.
  • The talo tanga and talo pula'au were the two original talo of the district.

The semi-wild talo, talo pula'au was given a mythical origin from the chewed pigeon food (mama lupe) described under pigeon netting. It is edible but not fit to place before guests. Hence has arisen an apologetic expression for the poorness of the food placed before visiting chiefs:

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Talofa, e leai se lelei na o pula'au se mea nei. E le aonga. Regrets, there is nothing worthy as this is pula'au. It has no value.

When dug up, the tops of the talo were cut off with the stalks in one piece. The outer wider leaves were removed. This formed the seed (tiapula). Following the custom of collecting mats and other articles, people short of planting material visited other villages ceremonially and were supplied.

The tiapula were planted in holes (lua'i) made with the planting stick which was then called oso to tiapula. The hole was always made much larger than the plant. Mr. Judd (17, p. 13) states that the hole was made deep and wide enough to receive two "seeds" which, being planted at the bottom of the hole, were protected from the sun. The hole also collected water from the neighboring plants. In some parts, such as Ngataivai, Savaii, the tiapula are planted singly against the side of the hole which is kept patent. The talo cultivations are along the banks of a stream which often overflows and fills the holes with silt. Children clear the holes by scooping out the silt with their hands. The idea of the large hole is to allow the tuber to expand laterally. If the holes are not cleaned out, the talo grows long and thin.

There are two forms of planting; the dry planting in the bush cultivations, and wet planting (loiloi) in swampy lands. The swampy lands are limited in distribution and it may be said that dry planting is the more common form. Fairly extensive wet cultivations were seen at Tau, Olosenga, and Aunuu Island. In all these cultivations the talo swamp was formed between the hills and the raised beach. The water accumulation was natural and not due to artificial irrigation. The area was divided off into plots (fuinu'u) by cut drains and pathways. The drains (alavai) contained stagnant water and had been cut to lower the water surface and not for irrigation which was impossible owing to the one level of the cultivation. The paths had large stones placed in the damper parts as footways.

Mulching was used by not only spreading the cut weeds round the growing talo, but by using coconut leaves and even old mats spread over the ground between the talo. This, by keeping the sun off the ground, not only kept the ground from getting dry but also restricted the growth of weeds.

Light fences of sticks were run along the sides of the drain and helped to keep the coconut leaves at the edges from slipping down into the drain. Scarecrows were also used.

In some rocky parts, the holes had to be made in between the stones and were necessarily shallow. This condition exists at Asau, Savaii, and finds expression in the saying, "Ua fa'alua'i talo Asau" (Like making the holes for the talo of Asau).

The planting season for the talo extends the whole year round. It is usual, when a new cultivation is not contemplated, to cut off the tops as the talo are dug up and plant them in the same place.

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Wet planting is confined to natural swamps and seepages and the alavai are merely drains. The advanced system of irrigating terraces by leading the water down through irrigation ditches from the stream at a higher level is not part of the Samoan agricultural system. No built-up terraces were seen and it was stated that they were not known.

In the new cultivations, the talo followed the first or second crop of yams.

The ta'amu species of talo is the large form with most of the bulbous part growing above ground, known as kape or 'ape in other parts of Polynesia. It is grown and used as a food which is not restricted to times of drought. The following names were collected: laufala, lauo'o, usolenga, famai, funga lata, fanga. The last two are not eaten. Two kinds (tonga and niukini) were introduced from Tonga and New Guinea.

The sweet potato ('umala, Ipomoea batatas) was seen growing at Olosenga in sandy soil just outside the houses in small mounds. They were prolific and of good flavor but only grown because the talo crop had failed the previous year.

Arrowroot (masoa, Tacca pinnatifida) is cultivated from the stalks of the plant cut off in lengths after the mature root is dug up for use. In Samoa, according to Pratt (23, p. 238) the widespread Polynesian name of pia was abandoned because it had another meaning which he characterizes as obscene. The term masoa was substituted to satisfy the sentiments of prudery newly acquired from foreign teachers.

Sugar cane (tolo) was planted principally to provide leaves for thatch but is also grown for eating purposes near the houses in heaped up mounds called tapu'e. Mr. Judd (17, 2, p. 31) collected the following names with their characteristics:

  • Ula—wide leaves, red skin.
  • Fatu—narrow leaves, black skin (thatch only).
  • Uli—broad leaves, black skin.
  • Limu—broad leaves, green skin.
  • Vaivai ula—striped light green on red body.

The kava ('ava, Piper methysticum) was planted by preference in rocky places around the backs of houses or back in the cultivations. It was planted from the branches ('ata) and when the roots were dug up, a branch was always planted to provide for the future. Hence the saying, recommending wise provision at the time of attending to present needs:

E sua le 'ava 'ae to le 'ata (Dig up the kava root but plant the branch).

The ti (Cordyline terminalis) was easily grown from small side shoots. They were planted in the neighborhood of the houses and near at hand as the leaves were in constant demand for clothing. It may be owing to its extensive use in furnishing the titi kilts that it was not used so much to wrap page 549food. People soon get into the habit of associating material with particular needs. Thus the ti was for clothing and the banana leaf for food wrappings. The underground stem provided a saccharine chewing material.