Story by Janice Crowl
Photos by Jack Wolford
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.”
The Hamiltons’ Kurtistown nursery has since expanded into a forty-acre operation that includes a family-run farm, Hula Brothers, which ships rambutan, lychee and longan to the continental United States. The nursery is open to the public two times a year, which gives Susi the opportunity to share her knowledge and to fulfill one of her ambitions: to get more fruit into people’s yards. “It gives people an opportunity to talk with the growers. The ten people who work here know the fruit inside and out. Some have worked here over twenty years. And I don’t think every business has as many hands-on, scrappy kinds of people. It’s been one of my babies, and I want to put as much as I can into it,” she declares.
In her own yard Susi grows lemon, lime and tangelo. “I think every yard should have a ‘Minneola’ tangelo. It’s by far the richest-flavored citrus, though it’s hard to peel because most of the juice runs down your arm, but the juice is unbelievable! There’s so much—two fruits give you a big glassful.” Susi also likes ‘Kahalu‘u’ avocado. “It’s nutty, creamy, fleshy and small-seeded, but it doesn’t bear heavily,” she says. “But if you have to plant just one, plant a ‘Sharwil.’ It’s long-bearing—five months. You’ll get so much fruit, and you’ll get it every year.” In rainy Hilo you might not get many mangoes, but Susi says you can grow some of the best durian and mangosteen in the state, which command a hefty price at market. But the true value of any fruit, she believes, isn’t in its market price. “I hope residents continue to plant more of what they want to eat, whether it be abiu, lychee or other fruit. I hope to see them growing more of what they want to eat in my lifetime,” says Susi.
What’s the secret to growing healthy fruit trees? It’s a good idea to first have a soil analysis done by the UH Extension Service so that you know how to prepare the site before planting. Otherwise you might end up with a tree that produces little or no fruit. “You get one chance. Read about it,” Susi advises. Sometimes a little extra love doesn’t hurt, either. “I talk to my trees. I write poetry to my nutmeg tree. I love the rich warm seed, its soft blanket, the red lace inside. I dance around my tree and listen to the birds … and the quiet.”
Sour as it was, his formative experience with citrus came to fruition years later. When he turned 18 he moved to Morocco with his father and traveled throughout Europe, picking up horticultural skills in Switzerland. Eventually he was hired to teach forestry in Senegal, but when it became apparent that Senegalese farmers were more interested in fruit than forests, Milan sharpened his grafting knife. “I learned as I taught. I had a sixteen-acre farm in the bush, got some improved citrus and mango and started my own nursery,” says Milan. When the economy collapsed following a separatist rebellion, Milan relocated to neighboring Gambia. After twenty-five years in Africa, he moved to Kaua‘i at the invitation of Lelan Nishek, owner of Kauai Nursery & Landscaping.
Strong and wiry, Milan often spends eight hours a day grafting in the blazing sun. He specializes in true dwarf varieties of citrus that are grafted onto ‘Flying Dragon,’ otherwise known as Chinese bitter orange. The payoff is small trees—ten to twelve feet tall—excellent for homeowners. Avocado, dwarf star fruit, sweetsop and breadfruit are part of Milan’s repertoire, as are grafted mangoes. “All mangoes flower at the same time, but they ripen at different times,” says Milan. For the mango fanatic who has limited planting space, Milan offers a “cocktail tree”: Hawai‘i-adapted wild rootstock grafted with three mango varieties on each tree. Each variety has a different ripening season, so from a single tree you get mangoes from early June until late September or even Christmas. “About seven years ago we brought in an incredible mango, ‘Maha Janok,’ from the orchards of the king of Thailand. It grows in clusters, beautifully colored, one of richest-tasting mangoes I’ve ever had,” says Milan. He isn’t limiting himself, though, to improving on the familiar. “We also brought in sweet tamarind and Malay apples, which are like mountain apples.”
Milan and the cadre of master grafters like him are working to increase the diversity of the fruits we encounter daily, to make sapodilla and loquats as common as avocadoes and guava. He does this through free monthly gardening workshops at the nursery (“I have groupies who come to every one,” he jokes) and with the new varieties he gets from Ken Love, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers and an evangelist of Island fruit diversity.
“We can grow better loquat, and we could be growing the best figs in the world because of our microclimates and elevations,” says Ken. “It’s really no different from what the ancient Hawaiians were doing with agriculture. If we apply it to tropical fruit, we could have fruit yearround, utilizing the different varieties and elevations.” At the top of Ken’s list for making Hawai‘i a fruitopia are grapes. Hawai‘i imports over nine million pounds of grapes each year, and Ken is researching seventy low-elevation varieties to meet that demand locally. “If Don Marín could grow grapes on Vineyard Avenue in the 1800s, we should be able to come up with some!” Ken says.
The state Department of Agriculture is also promoting exotic tropical fruits, such as jackfruit, calamonsie, bilimbi, jaboticaba, soursop, white sapote and many others. For the time being those strange fruits are a niche market. “They’re being used by chefs and are often sold at farmers markets,” says Ken, but that, he hopes, will change. “The more the consumer accepts them, the more the grocery stores will want them, the more trees get planted and the more sustainable small family farms become. We must make agriculture desirable and profitable for future generations. Fruit is, I feel, the best way to do that.”