Story by Janice Crowl
Photos by Jack Wolford
Frankie Sekiya slices open an enormous reptilian-skinned fruit, a hybrid of jackfruit and chempedak. It’s a relative of the durian, a fruit so stinky it’s outlawed in some public places in Southeast Asia. Frankie pries apart the thick green rind to reveal glistening sections the color of cheddar. It smells of overripe bananas, pineapple and, ever so faintly, a high school locker room. The flavor reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum. I want to like it. But the pulp proves too slimy and chewy for my Western palate. “Like eating oysters,” muses Frankie.
Frankie is humble, but don’t let that fool you: He’s an adventurer who’s traveled the world for three decades on a quest for new tropical fruits. At Frankie’s Nursery in Waimanalo, he has amassed the largest and most diverse collection of ultra-exotic tropical fruits in Hawai‘i. His fruit stand displays an astonishing array of unusual fruits, some that barely look edible. They look like rocks or aliens or … poison. Fortunately for avid local gardeners like me, Frankie knows the secrets of these ambrosial treats, and he’s happy to share his experience in growing and eating them.
It may be strange to think of it, but before Hawaiians landed here, there really wasn’t much fruit on these islands apart from coconuts. The Polynesians brought a few fruits in their canoes, notably ‘ohi‘a ‘ai (mountain apples), maia (bananas) and ‘ulu (breadfruit). But the amazing diversity of fruits we call “tropical” today came much later: Oranges arrived in 1792, and in 1810 the Spaniard who served as Kamehameha I’s physician and adviser, Don Francisco de Paula Marín, first planted pineapple, grapes and mangoes. By 1849 Hawai‘i was shipping oranges to the West Coast to meet the demands of the Gold Rush. Today many introduced tropical fruits grow wild, including mango, papaya, avocado and guava, and while those fruits are now inseparable from Island culture, others—like the chico, cherimoya and jaboticaba—are still as alien as their names.
A few growers like Frankie are at the vanguard of an exotic fruit infusion, bringing in things most Americans have never heard of, much less eaten. Frankie’s got four hundred species of fruit trees, like canistel from Mexico, sapucaia, chupachupa, araçá boi, açaí, cupuaçu and buriti from South America, okari from Papua New Guinea, marang from Borneo. I’m amazed by the black Surinam cherry, which has none of the turpentine aftertaste of the more common red variety. The fruit of the kepel tree, Frankie says, is what the sultans of Java fed their harems to make their bodily excretions smell like violets. “Didn’t work for me,” he admits. “Maybe you have to eat a lot of them.”
Although the lawn was the only thing growing at his parents’ house in Mililani, Frankie’s agricultural roots run deep—his grandfather ran the store on a pineapple plantation, and his grandfather’s cousin Kichitaro Sekiya was an early pioneer of growing tropical fruits in Hawai‘i. Frankie spent his summers picking pine and soaking up horticultural knowledge among the plantation’s experimental plots. While Frankie was in elementary school, a visiting gardener demonstrated the art of grafting a hibiscus. The idea that you could create a new plant left an impression, and Frankie read everything he could find on grafting. Years later he tried it himself on an avocado he’d planted in his parent’s backyard.
The nursery started as a weekend business in the 1980s, and as Frankie’s reputation grew he began working with University of Hawai‘i researchers, who gave him new varieties to try out. He traveled to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. He planted rambutan, durian and langsat. Most locals know rambutan by now—it looks like a hairy lychee—but what’s a langsat? It’s related to a santol, says Frankie. What’s a santol? “It’s more of a sucking fruit—you don’t bite it,” he explains. The flavor reminds me of tamarind or li hing. “It gets sweeter as it ripens. Filipinos love this fruit,” says Frankie. “When they found out that we had it, families with as many as fifteen people would come.”
Among fructiphiles Frankie is regarded as a master grafter and breeder par excellence. Take his ‘Meli Kalima,’ a super-sweet pineapple that’s all the rage at O‘ahu farmers markets, where they sell for $6 a pound ($10 in gourmet specialty markets). It’s a creamy sugar bomb that’s a hybrid of two Island pineapple varieties, ‘Hilo White’ and ‘Dry Sweet,’ which Frankie planted about ten years ago. After he discovered a fruit filled with hundreds of seeds, he correctly guessed that it was a hybrid of the two. He planted every seed, yielding hundreds of plants, eighteen of which produced delicious fruit. One in particular—lucky number thirteen—was so delectable that Frankie has a patent pending and won’t sell the fruit with the crown. Demand is so high that sometimes every fruit is sold before it’s even harvested.
“It takes persistence,” says Frankie when I ask him what it takes to become a plant breeder working at that level. “At first you’re just experimenting, but as time goes on you get more involved. After a while it’s perfection.”