story by Shannon Wianecki
photo by Chris McDonough
Smack! The machete slams down into the coconut, neatly shaving away husk from inner nut. Phillipe Visintainer cracks open the nut and passes out chunks of the white coconut meat to a young couple visiting his Huelo Lookout Fruit Stand, a brightly painted landmark on Maui’s famous road to Hana. Along with the coconut, Phillipe doles out advice about the long drive ahead, while loading his customers up with fresh papaya, mango, rambutan and lychee.
Despite the menacing machete, Phillipe has earned a reputation as something of a tree-hugger—or at least as a one-man rescue operation, single-handedly defending against
a deadly fungus that affects Hawai‘i’s coconut palms. When he discovered “coconut heart rot” on his farm five years ago, Department of Agriculture representatives told him they didn’t have the resources necessary to fight the rampant infection. So Phillipe did it himself.
Building on research abandoned by the University of Hawai‘i after Hurricane ‘Iniki struck in 1992, he developed an inoculation program. He now travels island to island, injecting a phosporous solution into the hearts of palms. No cure exists for diseased trees, but those Phillipe treats prior to infection have a 98 percent survival rate—in fact, the inoculation appears to stimulate healthy growth.
An unlikely superhero, Visintainer moved to Maui twenty years ago. His accent still bears traces of his native France. “I like taking care of the trees,” he says. “I don’t want to be stuck in an office. Having a successful business is good, but I’m more into having a great life.”
And life is great in Huelo, where travelers winding their way to Hana snack on tropical fruits, smoothies, homemade trail mix and fruit-filled crêpes. Below the roadside stand a picnic table hangs over a lushly forested valley. Thanking Phillipe for the coconut, the young couple steals a kiss at the romantic overlook and heads back out onto the Hana Highway.
Huelo Lookout Fruit Stand