Story by Jon Letman
Photos by Elyse Butler
There’s an ancient Hawaiian story that tells of the banana field of Kahuoi growing deep in Maui’s Waiho‘i Valley. The legend, recorded by nineteenth-century ethnologist Abraham Fornander, claims that the patch was so large that it would have been impossible to walk around it without a guide, and that any stranger who tried would become hopelessly lost. Intrigued by the legend, naturalist Angela Kay Kepler and her husband, Frank Rust, hired a helicopter in 2004 to search for the legendary patch.
Along the Waiohonu river—just where the legend said it would be—they found what Kepler’s research showed to be “the single largest wild-growing traditional Hawaiian banana patch in Hawai‘i.” A thrilling find, but there was more. The helicopter had begun its return flight when, looking down at the valley thick with ‘uluhe fern and invasive ginger, Kepler noticed another patch of odd, dark red bananas. She wanted a closer look, but first she wanted to bring along Kamaui Aiona, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Kahanu Garden in Hana.
“Angela called me and said, ‘Can you meet us at the Hana Airport? There’s something we want to show you,’” Aiona recalls. “That’s how bananas she is.” But Aiona, being a bit bananas himself, rushed to the airport, and off they flew to the mysterious patch.
The trio landed, dug up two keiki (young shoots) and brought them back to Kahanu Garden, where Kepler and Rust identified them: a previously undescribed variety of Hawaiian banana called Mai‘a (banana) ‘Ele‘ele (black) forma Pale. They’re still growing at Kahanu Garden, part of a collection of forty-four banana varieties, the most diverse collection in the state.