story by Katie Yamanaka
Why would a Cincinnati man pick up the phone in the dead of winter and order twenty-four jars of jam from the Big Island? The fruit of the ‘ohelo plant, a small scarlet berry, is one of Hawai‘i’s edible delights. Close cousins of blueberries, ‘ohelo berries are tart when raw and mildly bittersweet when cooked.
“It’s unique,” says Ola Tripp, owner of Kilauea General Store. “The berries grow wild and aren’t commercially farmed anywhere.” Tripp has been making ‘ohelo berry jam, one of the store’s best sellers, for more than twenty years. Local residents pick the berries in unrestricted areas and sell them to the store for about $3 a pound. Tripp freezes the berries, and the store’s baker creates products throughout the year based on demand, so items are always fresh. This year the store sold 100 cases of the jam in a matter of four months.
The ‘ohelo berry is a rare and much-prized fruit, and for centuries Native Hawaiians have offered them to Pele by throwing them into Kilauea Crater. The small shrub fruits June through September and only in the higher elevations of the Volcano area of the Big Island and Haleakala on Maui. Restrictions now limit the amount of berries picked within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park to one quart per person per month for personal use only. This regulation protects nënë (Hawaiian geese) because ‘ohelo berries are an important part of the state bird’s diet.
But with help from the public, Kilauea General Store and a few other small companies manage to collect enough. Tripp says the jam pairs well with typical breakfast fare and makes a tangy marinade or a glaze for ham and sausages. The store distributes the product to various places on the Big Island, including Longs Drugs and KTA Superstores, as well as some locations on O‘ahu.
Eric Inouye, owner of Hirano Store in Glenwood, has also been creating his own ‘ohelo berry jam for more than twenty yearsboth for local sales and mail orders. “Local people know how hard it is to get in the first place,” says Inouye. “And the taste is unlike anything else.”