Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Heart of Palm

Story by Christie Wilcox. Photos by Logan Mock-Bunting.

People think that you can tell everything you need to know about a coconut by its color: The greener the husk, the younger and tastier it is. Not so, says Hans Heinz, a.k.a. the Coconut Man: “You can have brown ones that are younger than green ones.” To evaluate coconuts, Heinz relies on heft and the sound of the sloshing liquid inside to categorize them: The oldest coconuts are best for harvesting oil; middle-aged nuts have rich, thick “spoon” meat; the young “drinkers” are full of water; and the youngest “jelly beans” have sweet, more translucent flesh.

There’s never a lack for coconut vendors along roadsides and at farmers markets in Hawai‘i, but Heinz takes things to an obsessively higher level. It all began with a dare: Back when he was a premed student at the University of Miami, a friend of his said,“I bet you can’t climb up that tree and get that coconut,” to which he replied, “Oh yes I can!” Years later, when Heinz was visiting Hawai‘i to surf during a break from his postgraduate studies in Chinese medicine, he stayed with someone who climbed coconut trees, and he was reminded of that day. As soon as he began climbing again, he was hooked. “From that point I just became fascinated with the coconut palm. I wanted to make everything I could out of every single piece of it.” He even learned metalwork so he could fashion more efficient husking blades.

Today, Heinz continues to practice medicine at night (keeping his acupuncture kit nearby at all times, just in case), but his diurnal life is all about coconuts. He trims trees for some three hundred O‘ahu properties (climbing the trunks without using spikes, of course), which provides him with the nuts and fronds for his business, Roots & Branches, which he runs with friend Al Smith. From the fronds he weaves hats, mats and baskets. He sells coconut water by the jug and the nuts fresh. He harvests their fibers, shells and oil for soaps, cups and salves, all of which he sells at O‘ahu farmers markets. Where does a do-it-all coconut man go from here? “I want to grow a coconut grove,” he grins. “That would be ideal.”