Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, December 19, 1997

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Feathery yellow rambutan tastes like a somewhat
sharper lychee, but is much more decorative.

Branching out

Exotic tropical fruit trees add variety
to Hawaii gardens

ABOUT the last thing you need to do at this point, six days before Christmas, is to think about planting a fruit tree. But on the other hand, it might take your mind off the presents you haven't got yet for Auntie and the next door neighbors.

Out in Waimanalo, Frank Sekiya grows and sells all the fruit trees you ever heard of, from sour lemons to sweet mangoes, plus a bunch you may not know about. Sweet tamarind, for instance, or the yellow rambutan with fruit covered with what looks like canary feathers are two of Sekiya's newer crops.

The tamarind tree has a long history in Hawaii, with one on Fort Street said to have been planted by Don Marin in 1797. Native to the dry parts of Africa and Asia, it grows there to a height 80 feet. Here it is a medium sized tree, and can be kept even smaller, Sekiya says, by careful pruning. It is planted in India for its fruit, which is a staple of Indian cooking.

The wood is hard and durable, and is used for furniture and small decorative pieces, but it is the pods on the tree that produce the sticky pulp that flavors curries, chutney and drinks. The pod is a velvety red-brown, about 6 inches long, with a brittle shell. When the shell is cracked, it exposes a few seeds embedded in a thick sticky brown syrup with a pleasant but very sour taste. But Sekiya's tree has pods with a sweet syrup that he says makes the best possible soft drink and doesn't require loads of sugar.

"It was a mutation discovered in Thailand -- certain branches of a particular tree produced sweet fruit. So they took those branches and grafted them onto tamarind trees with sour fruit. I brought one over from Thailand many years ago, and it never fruited. It was growing on a hillside in subsoil, it got very little water and we never gave it any care. It got smaller and smaller, and I finally sold it to the university's Urban Garden at Pearl City. It became a great favorite there."

So Sekiya took a graft he had made from the original tree and began taking better care of it, and from it he now has many new trees. They look much like the opiuma tree that grows in front of Fernhurst YWCA, across from the Punahou campus on Wilder Avenue, but without the thorns or white flowers. The flowers on Sekiya's tamarinds look like tiny yellow orchids. He said that tamarinds grows best in dry areas with a heavy clay soil, as in Kaimuki.

His other prize is the rambutan with the yellow feathery fruit. The fruit has the same consistency but a sharper flavor than a lychee. It grows in clusters like lychee, but is much more decorative. It fruits in the winter, and is at its height of production now. The fruit also makes beautiful, but short-lasting table arrangements.

The tree, if left alone, will grow very large, but can be pruned into a medium sized tree. It will not take heavy winds and needs high humidity to grow well.

Another of Sekiya's recommendations is the caimito tree, or star apple. The fruit when ripe is soft and sweet, if something of an acquired taste. But the real reason for growing a camito is its beautiful leaves. They are a satiny green on top and gold on the lower surface, and when the wind blows through the tree, moving the leaves, it's magic. The gray-green bark of the tree has an interesting crackled surface.

Sekiya for many years has cultivated the Rapozo mango, which is one of the few varieties that is delicious and will grow in wet areas. "The fruit is the color and has the taste of the Haden mango but the fruit can weigh two pounds. It is good quality, fiberless and bears consistently and heavily. It is also persistent. If the tree flowers and is hit by a fungus, those flowers will fall off and it will pump out a new flush. And if those are hit, it will try again until a drier period arrives and the fruit finally sets," he said.

The Rapozo mango is a big tree, but can be kept pruned. "Prune yearly right after the fruit has been harvested," Sekiya said. "Take off the upright branches and let the lateral, sideways branches grow."

Having trouble staying awake these days? Maybe you need a grana tree, a native of Brazil, with nuts containing more caffeine than coffee beans. It is currently being used by the soft drink industry to create a buzzy new product. Brazilians eat the nuts to curb their appetite, losing weight in the process, but Sekiya says nobody is commercializing this angle. You'd be skinny but sleepless.

Not yet available to the public is Sekiya's new pineapple, a hybrid of the "dry sweet" variety. "The true dry sweet has so many seeds. But we also grow the Kona white, and this is probably a cross pollination of the two. It is sweet, low acid, with a crunchy texture and no seeds. We kept the crown of the first one and cut up the mother plant. The next fruit was a dud, and the third was good but it had the white flesh of the Kona white. We just picked the latest fruit last week and it was great."

He also has a variety called the cheese pineapple, and can't think of why unless people ate it with cheese. It has the texture of an apple, but because it is thorny it has no commercial value. Another fruit with the flavor of an apple is the apple guava. Sekiya says it is almost seedless and makes a great apple pie, and you can't grow real apples here.

Frankie's Nursery, Sekiya's company, is open to the public by appointment. He sells these and many more tropical fruit trees, and also takes one or two people on tours of the garden in a golf cart or serious shoppers in a truck. The couple from San Diego who bought the Marcos estate in Makiki were shopping during this interview. They fit the latter category as they are replanting the entire property with fruit trees. The tour charge is $1 for students and $3 for adults. Call 259-7819 for information. And have a very Merry Christmas. You can always plant the tree next year..

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

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