Tropical Treasures

Go bananas for one of America’s favorite fruits and its compelling history in Hawaii.

  • The majority of bananas imported into the U.S. come from plantations in Central and South American countries.
    Photo by Getty/AsianFirecracker
  • PŌpŌ‘ulu bananas are much shorter and fatter than the typical grocery store banana.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Nam Wa bananas can be found growing in smaller banana farms in Hawaii.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Wild pinks are very different from the typical banana most Americans are used to.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • The ‘Fe’i,' banana is a deep-orange cooking banana that oozes bright-red sap from the peel like drops of blood.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Mai’a Maoli bananas are a traditional banana cultivar of Hawaii.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Many traditional banana cultivars can still be found growing in Hawaii on non-commercial farms.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Banana bunches are bagged while still on the tree to protect the fruits from pests or chemicals.
    Photo by Getty/SimonSkafar
  • Hawaiian Candy Apple Bananas began business in Hawaii in 1985
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Many bananas grown in Hawaii today originally came from Tahiti.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Bananas around the world come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
    Photo by Lindsay Gasik
  • Over time, ‘Cavendish’ bananas have been specially bred to eliminate seeds from the fruit. Many other banana cultivars still have seeds, some of which are large enough to take up the majority of the fruit.
    Photo by Adobe/©clfortin

“I’m going to grow the ‘Gros Michel’ commercially,” Gabe Sachter-Smith says, picking a petite, finger-length banana out of the bowl of his upturned hat and handing it to me.

My eyes widen. “You think you can really do that?”

Standing in the volcanic hollow of one of Oahu’s last banana farms, fraying fronds hang limp between our heads and a crystal sky. Toward the ocean, dry trade winds stir white specks into the turquoise Pacific. Here on the north shore, Sachter-Smith is working to establish Hawaii Banana Source, a new nursery and farm with 150 banana cultivars, the result of his research in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, southern China, Uganda, and, of course, Hawaii. A graduate of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences program with a thesis on banana diseases, Sachter-Smith is a banana expert.

“How?” I challenge him, stripping off the banana’s thin skin to reveal firm, almost crunchy, orange-yellow flesh. It’s sweet and tangy, with a bite like apple cider. But it isn’t a ‘Gros Michel’; less than 1 percent of all bananas grown in Hawaii are.

Arrival to the Americas

The ‘Gros Michel’ (Musa acuminata) was introduced to the Western world as a botanical curiosity from Thailand or Malaysia, arriving at the Caribbean island of Martinique in the early 1830s. Jean François Pouyat, a French botanist, found it there in 1835 and took clippings back to his plantation in Jamaica. Its name not yet firmly established, ‘Gros Michel’ was sometimes called ‘Pouyat,’ ‘Jamaican,’ or, when shipments to New York started around 1866, ‘Go Yark.’

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