Growing family


POSTED: Saturday, June 20, 2009

Don't blink. If you do, you'll probably miss the weathered thatch-roof shack on South Kihei Road that Dr. Wilbert Yee and his family fill with tropical gems year-round.





        The 20-acre farm in Kihei, Maui, has been operated by the Yee family for more than 60 years.

» Address: 1165 South Kihei Road, Kihei, Maui (next to Longs Drugs; the nearest cross street is Nohokai Street)


» Tours: Sundays at 2 p.m. Reservations must be made at least three days in advance.


» Cost: $8 for adults and $4 for children ages 4 through 12. Up to 10 people can be accommodated; specify the number of participants when making reservations.


» Phone: (808) 242-9159


» Notes: The fruit stand is open daily except Monday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cash only.




Offerings vary, depending on what's in season, but think golden bananas, emerald star fruit and rambutan the color of rubies. Passion fruit with amethyst skins might catch your fancy, or perhaps grapefruit whose juicy flesh reflects the delicate hue of rose quartz.

Scrawled on an old board is a list of two dozen kinds of fruit, most plucked from Yee's Orchard, which meanders over 20 acres behind the popular roadside stand. Four generations of Yee's family have worked at the stand, which he and his late wife, Virginia, opened 30 years ago to sell their succulent crops.

This time of year crowds come especially for mango, which was first cultivated in India 5,000 years ago. It is said Buddha often meditated in the shade of mango groves. The 16th-century Mogul emperor Akbar the Great reputedly loved mangoes so much he planted 100,000 trees near Darbhanga in northern India just for his pleasure. To win favor with the emperor, nobles knew they had to come to his court bearing gifts of sweet mango.

From India, traders, travelers and monks took mangoes to East Asia, East Africa, Brazil, the West Indies, Mexico and the Philippines. Historians believe Don Francisco de Paula Marin, the Spanish-born adviser to the alii (monarchy), planted the first mango seedlings in Hawaii in the 1820s. He was known as a man of many talents and interests, among them horticulture.

Today a thousand varieties of mango are propagated in tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including Nigeria, Pakistan and the People's Republic of China. Yee's Orchard grows 10 varieties, but sells only two of them commercially, Haden and Golden Glow.

A retired optometrist who will turn 91 next month, Yee escorts visitors on a weekly one-hour tour of the orchard, which includes 400 mango trees. Don't expect polish and pizzazz, though; Yee doesn't have a formal spiel, and he drives participants around in a surplus golf cart that he bought years ago from Wailea Resort. There are no paved paths, so the ride is pretty bumpy—probably not the best bet for pregnant women and those with back problems.





        2 cups flour

        2 teaspoons baking soda

        2 teaspoons cinnamon

        1/2 teaspoon salt

        2 cups mango, chopped

        1 cup sugar

        3/4 cup oil

        3 eggs, beaten

        1 tablespoon lemon juice

        1/2 cup raisins (optional)

Mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a bowl. Make a well and add the remaining ingredients except for the raisins. Blend all ingredients, then stir in the raisins. Pour the batter into two regular-size or five mini loaf pans. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes.




That said, now is a great time to take the tour since mangoes will be ripening at the orchard for at least the next month. During bumper seasons, workers pick and pack 200 15-pound boxes of the luscious fruit each day.

Every mango is harvested by hand, which can be tricky. “;Sometimes ripe mangoes will be among green ones,”; Yee said. “;You have to be careful because you need to pick the ripe ones without knocking down the green ones. Mangoes grow well in Kihei's hot, dry climate; we don't do anything special.”;

Yee's parents purchased the parcel in 1945, initially planning to cultivate mulberry trees to produce silk. When that didn't pan out, Yee's younger brother Warren began planting mango trees. Some of those trees are 60 years old and still bearing fruit.

When Warren married and moved to Honolulu, the responsibility of caring for the orchard fell to Yee and his family. For more than 50 years, Yee supervised operations at the orchard while running his busy optometry practice in Wailuku. Until her death a decade ago, Virginia was in charge of the fruit stand.

Other family members pitched in whenever they could. “;When my son Steve and daughter Pat (Iwamoto) were young, they assembled boxes, labeled fruit and worked at the stand,”; Yee said. “;My two grandchildren also did that, and I have a 10-year-old great-grandson who helps out, too.”;

Eighty percent of the mangoes from Yee's Orchard go to wholesalers, stores and restaurants on Maui, Oahu and the Big Island. Customers, including visitors staying at nearby condos, snap up the rest at the fruit stand, where Iwamoto also sells her homemade mango bread, mango chutney and dried and pickled mango.

She and her husband Harold now oversee all phases of the business, from pest control and sales to deliveries and the fruit stand. With mango harvesting in full swing, her schedule is more hectic than usual. “;Picking is hard work, but it can be very therapeutic,”; Iwamoto said. “;You don't have to do anything but look at the mangoes and think, 'OK, are you ripe or not?'”;

A good source of fiber and vitamins A and C, mango makes delicious muffins, mousses, breads, pies, cakes and cobblers. Culinary wizards also have whipped up ono mango chutneys, ice creams, salads, salsas and sorbets.

Yee, however, will tell you there's no finer treat than fresh, chilled mango. “;Put lettuce on a plate and put mango slices on top of the lettuce,”; he said. “;Then put cottage cheese on top of the mango.”;

He paused and smiled at the image. “;Try it,”; he said. “;It's simple, but that's really one of the best ways to eat mango.”;