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Bananas in Hawai'i Today
In our modern era of endless conveniences and luxuries, we take bananas for granted, but until about 1900, few Westerners knew of their existence and even fewer had eaten them. In fact, bananas were the first tropical fruit to be mass produced for North American and European markets. Imagine those first bananas exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, wrapped in foil and offered for ten cents apiece! On the opposite side of the world though, in Southeast Asia and New Guinea, villagers had been improving local banana landraces for millennia! Indeed, the seedless banana was one of the world’s first domesticated food plants, at least seven thousand years ago, in the New Guinea highlands.
Of approximately 1000 named edible banana varieties in the world, about 100 grow in Hawai‘i. For a sampling, see the figure below. As a whole, they include traditional varieties from Hawai‘i, Tahiti and Tonga, ethnic bananas of multinational origin, and widespread international commercial varieties. They ranged from finger sized Mai‘a Hāpai to the almost-arm-length ‘Horn’ plantains, from delectably sweet-tart “apple” bananas to the ultra-starchy fē‘ī, whose astringency may create havoc with your taste buds if you accidentally munch on uncooked fruit. All are appetizing, some especially so.
Although standard supermarket bananas are inexpensive to buy, they are all the same type (‘Grande Naine’ or ‘Valery’, Cavendish Group). Each fruit has traveled thousands of miles on ships and airplanes to reach its destination, coddled in climate- and fungus-controlled compartments. Every year, millions of tons of them arrive in Hawai‘i from Guatemala, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, augmenting those grown locally on commercial farms.
The majority of banana plants grown in the islands are ‘Hawaiian Apple’, ‘Williams’, and ‘Chinese’. We encourage all homeowners to grow some. All are tasty and each, in its own manner, has added rich overtones to Hawai‘i’s cultural heritage. For example, in ancient Hawai‘i, a new banana bud signified a new human life, and suckers, springing up from the mother plant, were children (keiki).
After a while, you may watch the local birds that live around your home more than previously because they, too, love to eat ripe bananas. You will observe weather patterns more closely and delight in your mother plant “giving birth” to new buds bulging with incipient fruits. Even if you have the misfortune to live in an area infected with banana bunchy top virus, you can still grow selected varieties that will bear fruit for a few years.
Regretfully, traditional mai‘a count among some of the world’s rarest crop plants. Most teeter on the brink of extinction; for some, we know of only one or two plants. Precious Polynesian heirlooms are these mai‘a, offspring of millions of generations of bananas spread across the Pacific. Their ocean-tossed road to Hawai‘i was long and precarious, but once established in Hawai‘i, centuries of farmers tended them around their dwellings and in moist uplands, savoring their delicious textures and tastes and frequently offering samples to divine spirits. Today, relatively few islanders know about them, but times are changing as key botanical gardens begin to feature them. To grow mai‘a takes commitment since they are magnets to many introduced pests and diseases, particularly corm weevils.
Raising bananas is like raising chickens: both are timeless foods that thrive best in Hawai‘i’s subtropical climate when we understand and supply their basic needs. Both bathe our taste buds with scrumptious homegrown flavors, simultaneously providing better nutrition than their store bought equivalents. The pleasure that stems from living a partly self-sufficient lifestyle—which in Hawai‘i begs to incorporate bananas—resonates with the delight of pursuing age old agricultural practices that have sustained Pacific islanders for eons. One day, in Hawai‘i’s flotilla of volcanic isles, far distant from the nearest continent, banana growing and other land husbandry skills may prove vital as our globalized world propels itself headlong into a problematic future.
This article was excerpted with kind permission from the authors from: Kepler, A. K. and F. G. Rust. (2011) The World of Bananas in Hawai‘i: Then and Now—Traditional Pacific & global varieties, cultures, ornamentals, health & recipes. Pali-O-Waipi‘o Press, Haiku, Hawaii.
Purchase the book at your local bookstore in Hawai'i or order from www.bananas-hawaii.com