It was a gorgeous day when we cruised up the Hamakua Coastal road on the hunt for a taste of Hawaiian durian, not knowing we were in for a taste of how everything gets lost, changes, and finds new identities in the migration shuffle to a new land.
Introducing the Hamakua Coast
So much land was cleared for sugar cane on the Hamakua Coast that by 1905 residents raised concern about deforestation causing erosion and mudslides, but that didn’t stop the reign of sugar on this verdant, rolling coastline just north of Hilo.
With 84 inches of rain per year, fertile soil, soft, undulating hillsides and a breeze from the Pacific, the Hamakua was an amazingly scenic area for a sugarcane kingdom. Sugar reigned supreme until 1946, when a tsunami wiped out the sugar trains and much of the infrastructure. While the Hamakua Sugar Company continued to operate until 1994, the train tracks were never rebuilt and the sugar fields slowly but surely were abandoned.
By the late 1980’s and 1990’s, most of the sugar land was for sale. Today it’s one of the durian heartlands of Hawaii.
From Australia to Hawaii
In 1980, long before the internet, Ed Johnston was living in Australia and working for a 100-acre tropical fruit farm just south of Cairns.
At that time, the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI), the Australian equivalent of the Department of Agriculture, was hard at work promoting and assisting an infant durian industry in North Australia. Between 1975 and 1985, they imported over 30 durian varieties from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and had kept track of how each variety was performing at their 19 degrees latitude to the south, which was considered marginal for ultra tropicals.
Hawaii is also 19 degrees latitude, but to the north. So it was assumed that what was growing in Queensland should grow in Hawaii.
By 1989, Ed had moved to the Big Island of Hawaii and was looking for a place of his own. One day, he was eating durian with his fruit-nerd friend John Mood when a mutual acquaintance passed by. They waved down his pickup to share durian. As they chatted, it turned out the guy had old abandoned sugarcane land for sale in Pepe’ekeo, on the Hamakua Coast, and he offered it to Ed.
Once Ed had his own farmland with a beautiful stream running through it, his main interest, he decided, would be preserving the 13 native species of Hawaiian ‘Awa (known as Kava in other Polynesian languages).
But, he also wanted some durians.
And since ‘Awa is shade-loving plant, why not plant it under a canopy of durians?
Since email wasn’t invented yet he picked up the telephone and asked buddies in Australia to send over the current recommended cultivars.
He ended up receiving 9 durian varieties, shipped over by post as baby grafted trees. He planted them on his farm in 1991 amidst the ‘Awa, and the trees grew and thrived.
But unbenown to Ed, something was amiss.
Later in 1991, the head of the QDPI back in Queensland published a newsletter titled “THE DURIAN CULTIVAR FIASCO.”
Which was about to become THE HAWAIIAN CULTIVAR FIASCO, with Ed’s trees front and center.
The Hawaiian Durian Cultivar Fiasco
Fast forward to 2021, and the trees are 30 years old. Only 3 of them have survived, but they’re healthy and hale and make a surprising amount of fruit. When we visited Ed, the “D123” tree was absolutely loaded.
The only problem is that, D123 is not D123. Chanee is not Chanee. And Eddie’s Special…well, who knows about Eddie’s Special.
What they really are, Ed doesn’t know.
Wrote DPI in 1991:
Fortunately, no very large areas of durians have yet been planted in Queensland because the introduction programs have been compromised and a number of cultivars are not what they are reputed to be. In other words, despite introductions being made from reputable sources, in some cases cultivar identification is far from correct (…).
Chanee, which has been extensively distributed, is in fact Gob. Chanee has not yet been successfully introduced.Brian Watson, RFCA 1991
And as all of you who have been reading this blog for some time know, Gob is an alternative spelling of Kob, and there are over 50 different types of Kob.
So now you know what a mess this Hawaii Durian Cultivar Fiasco really is…
Luckily we arrived on a hot sunny afternoon when the tree had just dropped a super fresh, sticky, and milky durian for us with the flavor of caramelized milk and a faint peppery burn that hinted at numbness.
It was excellent, but it definitely wasn’t the D123 that I remember eating in Malaysia.
So I grabbed a photo series of a D123 durian taken at the Batu Seketol Germplasm in Kedah, Malaysia, for comparison.
The color itself seemed like a giveaway, since Ed’s durian is pale ivory yellow and the D123 I remember have soft, swollen, dark golden flesh that grays easily after falling.
Have a look at the Malaysian D123 and the Hawaii D123. What do you think?
To add to the mystery, Ed was additionally sent a grafted tree labeled Chanee.
With its voluminous white pods, slightly firm texture and milky bitter flavor, this was pretty obviously not Chanee either.
Brian Watson wrote in 1991 that Australia’s ‘Chanee” was really a Kob. But which Kob?
Let us know in the comments what you think!
A passion for ‘Awa
Luckily, the Kava hasn’t been so difficult in identification. The low growing crop is in the same genus as black pepper (Piper) and was brought to Hawaii by the ancients in their canoes.
Ed was able to get most of his kava varieties locally, but he ended up collecting from further afield as well as the obsession grew.
Weirdly, kava produces asexually and although the plant produces flowers, they don’t serve much purpose.
It means that all of Hawaii’s kava varieties spring from an original mother plant back in South Pacific, centuries ago.
Any variation between them is caused by spontaneous mutations, known as chimeras.
Papa ele’ele – The Queen’s ‘Awa
According to legend, around the 13th century Queen Lu’ukia planted this variety of Kava in the Waipio Valley, where it grows wild today.
That’s where Ed first encountered it in 1985, and fell in love with Kava.
Papa ele’ele is recognized by its purplish color and short internodes – the space in between the nobs. But weirdly, occasionally something magical happens to Papa ele’ele and it changes.
Ed lifted the leaves to show us a new variety of Kava spontaneously erupting from the Papa ele’ele patch – the ‘Awa Hiwa, sacred to the ancient Kings of Hawaii.
Although it sprouts from short-internoded Papa ele’ele, the internodes are up to a foot long. It’s an example of a chimera.
In ancient Hawaii, ‘Awa Hiwa was so sacred that only the Ali’i, the nobility, were permitted to drink it in ceremony.
Lastly, we looked at a Papa Kea, a slow growing, short-noded green ‘Awa that is considered one of the strongest. The active ingredients in Kava are called kavalactones, which are measured in percentages.
Kava cultivars range anywhere from 8% kavalactones, up to Papa Kea’s 22%!
So if you’re looking for a higher dose to plant under your durian trees, Papa Kea might be a good choice 🙂
Hakalau Farmer’s Market
If you want to get to taste of the Hawaii D123 or Unknown Chanee, head up the road a bit to the Hakalau Farmer’s Market on Chin Chuck Road, where you can pick up pre-ordered durians at Anthony’s stall.
Anthony sells Durian Tempoyak (fermented cooked durian paste) among other goodies like homemade kimchi, Breadfruit Hummus, homegrown rambutans and other fruits, and of course if you get there early or make a pre-booking, DURIAN.
Catch Anthony on Tuesdays from 3-5pm.
For more information about Ed or interplanting durian and Kava, go to https://www.associationforhawaiianawa.org/
To buy Hawaiian ‘Awa, Ed recommends https://gourmethawaiiankava.com/