Hawaiian bananas then and now

Anne Vézina Thursday, 16 February 2012

Bananas that have all but disappeared from farmers' fields live on in a meticulously documented and beautifully illustrated book by Angela Kepler and Frank Rust.

The banana is not native to Hawaii, but as the authors of The World of Bananas in Hawai’i: Then and Now demonstrate, it has a long and rich history worth telling. Most of the bananas currently grown in the archipelago are familiar types (such as Cavendish, Bluggoe, Pome and Red) that were introduced after 1850. They occupy the second half of the book. The first part is about bananas domesticated in the Western Pacific, the Iholenas, Maolis and Popoulus that Polynesian seafarers introduced to the Hawaiian Islands between 200 and 1350, along with some Fei bananas which constitute a different lineage. But that was then, as the title says. These unusual bananas have since been largely replaced, although not irreversibly it is hoped, by recently introduced bananas.

Hawaii is not unique in having experienced a steady decline in the cultivation of Pacific bananas. It must be unique, however, in being the home of thousands of Iholena and Maoli plants growing “wild” in forests. Acting on clues in Hawaii’s oral tradition, the authors hired helicopters to survey inaccessible valleys where banana-eating forest dwellers were said to have lived. The spectacular photos they brought back show clumps of bananas hanging on for dear life on steep mountainsides. The authors estimate that some 10,000 unattended banana plants dot the islands. Some of these plantings, they believe, were established several centuries ago by ancient Hawaiians forced to live apart from the general population. Others were planted more recently by workers building irrigation canals, to supplement their meagre rations. A few of these naturalized bananas were rescued by the authors and planted in their garden, where they no longer have to fend for themselves.

Sifting through archaeological and ethnological records, and turning their garden into a sanctuary and research collection for Hawaiian bananas, are only some examples of the dedication the authors brought to writing and illustrating the most comprehensive book on bananas in Hawaii, a project that took nine years to complete. It started when the principal author, Angela Kay Kepler, a New Zealand-born ecologist and author of 18 natural history books, was advised to concentrate on bananas instead of writing a book on the fruits and nuts of Hawaii. She had just returned to Hawaii, where she had lived on and off between the 1960s and 1980s, and had started a new life with her future co-author, Francis (Frank) Rust, a former biochemical engineer and horse breeder who had also recently moved from the US mainland.

Being relatively new to the topic, the husband-and-wife team enlisted the help of experts and became experts themselves after spending countless hours making detailed observations and taking stunning photographs of banana plants as they were growing. In 2006, Angela was invited to join the Taxonomy Advisory Group set up by Bioversity International to standardize the taxonomy of bananas, and continued on as member of the MusaNet Diversity Thematic Group that replaced it. The book is not however an academic treatise. The authors directly address their audience in a reader-friendly fashion, providing tips on everything from how to identify close to 100 different varieties (and 9 wild species), to how to grow them and protect them from their natural enemies, and eat them (the book has a chapter on recipes for dessert and cooking bananas). Appendices provide taxonomic keys, lists of synonyms and explanations on the nomenclature system used to classify bananas for readers interested in going deeper into this complex topic. The book is also a primer on the language used by Hawaiians to talk about bananas. In fact, the names of the subgroups that have come to be known as Pacific plantains (Iholena, Maoli and Popoulu, which are often preceded by maia the Hawaiian term for banana) come from Hawaii.

Without Angela and Frank, it’s quite possible that some of the 19 varieties of Hawaiian bananas that are teetering on the edge of extinction might have disappeared by now. It can only be hoped that this attractive book will help revive interest in the bananas that sustained ancient Hawaiians and helped shape their culture.

To order the book

The World of Bananas: Then and Now
Angela K. Kepler and Francis G. Rust.
Pali-O-Waipio Press, Haiku, Hawaii. 612pp. 2011.