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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 28, 2003

Disease, carelessness hurt 'native' bananas

By Heidi Bornhorst

Q. Where can one find "native" bananas, you know the old cultivars that the ancients carried here? The round popo'ulu types? I know they are becoming rarer, and I'd like to see some, or even more hopefully taste some before I die. Are those old kind less susceptible to that bad bunchy-top disease that affects our bananas here in Hawai'i? Mahalo, Hungry in Hau'ula

A. In the old days there were 70 cultivated varieties of bananas that expert Hawaiian farmers nurtured and crossbred. The one you are referring to is called mai'a popo'ulu (literally, breadfruit ball-like banana) and had pink flesh; it is used mainly in cooking.

Sadly, these Hawaiian-type cultivars are very susceptible to bunchy top. But they were already disappearing before someone carelessly smuggled bananas into Hawai'i and imported this devastating disease at the same time.

The old varieties do better at higher elevations, and you used to find them more along mauka trails and near old house sites.

The nice collection once found at Ho'omaluhia Botanic Garden succumbed to bunchy top. Waimea Arboretum had the last, best collection on O'ahu. But when I inspected the collection last week, it was in perilously sad shape; little horticultural care is being given to the plant collection. Things look dry, weedy, unmulched and unnurtured.

One of the best specimens of the precious plants, with fruit on it, was toppled by careless coconut tree trimming overhead, with complete disregard for the invaluable plantings below.

Cultivated plants like mai'a, kalo (taro), u'ala (sweet potatoes), and other prized Polynesian introductions need a lot of tending and care. Regular mulching and watering is the first step.

Q. That wiliwili in bloom along the freeway, before Moanalua Gardens, is it a native Hawaiian?? How bout the bright red full blooming one as you are coming out of Kailua heading for the Pali?

A. There is one patch of wiliwili along the freeway near Fort Shafter on the makai side that is an orange-flowered native Hawaiian wiliwili, Erythrina sandwicensis. This is very lovely, and we should plant more. One of the trees in the group was in bloom the other day. ÊOne way that you can tell the true natives is that they have pastel-colored blossoms: apricot, light orange chartreuse and so on. The pods have one to two seeds, and the seeds are bright red.

The bright red floriferous coral tree as you come out of Kailua and head up the Pali, along Kawainui Marsh there, is not the Hawaiian one. We should call it coral tree or tigers claw. Scientists call this non-native one Erythrina variegata. These are widely planted in the Islands, including on the University of Hawai'i-Manoa campus, at the state forestry building and at Magic island. These trees have bright red flowers and pods with many seeds inside. The seeds are dark burgundy-brown and look like a kidney bean.