If anyone can be called the` Durian Godparents of Hawaii it’s Frankie Sekiya and his wife Lynn.
Meet Frank Sekiya
Frankie started his nursery in his mother’s backyard in Mililani, in the inland middle part of Oahu.
His family had a Filipino neighbor who grew all kinds of fruit, including an especially good sapodilla with the texture of a Bartlett pear drowned in dark syrup.
As a kid he was fascinated with why some of the neighbor’s trees made amazing quality fruit (like the sapodilla), and some kind of sucked (like the canistel).
In second grade, Frankie learned how to graft hibiscus. It ignited his curiosity and eventually he got more into grafting. Among his first air layers that took was that special Sapodilla tree.
The plants just sort of took over from there.
By the late 1970’s, Frankie was selling potted plants out of his mothers yard. He killed the grass and filled every inch of the 10,000-foot lot with plants.
At a certain point, enough was enough and it was time to get an actual space of his own. Thanks to already having a successful nursery business, he was able to get a 55-year lease on land owned by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture in Waimanolo.
Frankie’s Nursery was born.
Frankie was already selling seedling durian plants at the nursery when some Thai friends went on and on about how much better their Monthong and Ganyao durians were to the durians available in Oahu.
At that time, the only durian he’d tasted was from a seedling tree on the Poamoho Experiment Station. He liked it immediately.
“I’d heard that it smelled bad, but it didn’t. Of course, I was already used to kimchi, pickled vegetables, natto, things like that,” he said. “So for me the smell wasn’t anything.”
Frankie got the idea to travel to get Improved Durian Varieties. It would be his first time leaving Hawaii.
Luckily his wife, Lynn, was supportive of his idea to travel.
The couple applied for USDA plant import permits and embarked on their first plant-hunting expedition in either 1985 or 1986 to Thailand, where they explored the famous orchards and nurseries of Nonthaburi.
This was before the 2012 flood wiped out 90% of the farmland there.”Many of the areas that we used to visit got changed over to homes,” Frankie reminisced.
Frankie remembers that even then, it was hard to find much diversity of fruits in Thailand. He found some neat Mafai and traveled to Chiang Mai in search of lychees and longans, but in terms of durian mostly people were growing almost exclusively Monthong and a little bit of Ganyao.
But within two years, his Monthong grafts from that trip were giving fruit at the nursery in Waimanolo. The Ganyao on the other hand, took over 10 years to fruit.
It was time to travel more.
Visiting Frankie’s Nursery & Fruit Farm Stand
When we visited in November 2021, Lynn was chatting with a customer in the front patio of their home surrounded by tables of fruit. Her niece, Ramani, manned the cash register.
We were immediately absorbed by the fruit display, which had several fruits we had never seen before.
Lynn invited us to sit at a table to wait for Frankie, so we ordered a pineapple juice made from Frankie’s famous Meli Kalima or “Honey Cream” pineapple.
It’s a very special pineapple that manages to combine all the rum-iness and creaminess of a Piña Colada inside of its white, firm flesh. I couldn’t believe that the juice contained no sugar, as it had a round, almost creamy coconutty sweetness, with almost no acid burn. Since that’s my personal favorite adult beverage, I was super happy.
Ramani also brought by a few fruits to taste that I had never seen before. There are after all, over a thousand species growing on the plot.
Cutite Pouteria macrophylla
“This one is going to surprise you,” Ramani warned.
It looks like a very small Canistel, and it is related. It has a skin so thin it’s almost not worth peeling it off, with a crumbly dry yellow flesh that coats your fingertips in a clumpy paste. I thought it was going to taste like Canistel (spoiler: I’m not a fan of Canistel), but the aroma stopped me from making pre-judgments.
It smelled like flowers. Like strong rose and jasmine perfume that’s been mixed with jackfruit and lingering blue cheese. I got over my textural issues just for the flavor and wonderful aroma.
Balata Manilkara bidentata
Native to Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean, the Balata was one of the tastiest tiny fruits I’ve had in 2021. It has a tough, grainy outer shell with a translucent flesh that turns opaque and milky when you squeeze it, sort of like the milky juice of a Caimito.
This is far sweeter than Caimito though, more like a brown sugar milk juice. Maybe it’s a good thing it’s so little so you don’t overdose!
Mundu Garcinia Dulcis
Among the fruits I was most excited to taste was the Mundu, Garcinia dulcis. This is supposed to be sweet, but the one I tasted in the Tenom Agricultural Park was sour sour sour. Like really sour. So sour miracle berries almost couldn’t fix it.
Frankie’s Mundu was like a delicious apricot-flavored mango. It was smooth and tropical tasting, but surprisingly familiar. Maybe he should send this one back to Tenom!
Frankie’s Oahu Durians
Frankie honestly isn’t sure how many durian trees he has. He’s planted hundreds of them over the years, but most succumbed to Oahu’s drier weather and trade winds. They’re planted all around his property and, with their permission, his neighbor’s property and even a few on land a bit further up the hill.
He’s also never stopped collecting.
Between 1985 and 2014, the couple traveled to SE Asia twice per year, exploring the farms, nurseries and agricultural research stations of Java, Sumatera, Bali, and Kalimantan in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and Penang, Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia.
In Singapore, they tasted varieties that very few people today will remember or ever get to taste, like the government-selected HC Tan #2, A69, and Lim Keng Meng that appear to have been lost in Singapore.
“They’re really good,” he says. Lim Keng Meng died in transit, but A69 flourished and HC Tan #2 grew into a big tree with giant fruits like a Thai durian that was everyone’s favorite.
But he lost that tree due to wind a few years ago.
In Sarawak, he and Lynn explored the government research stations and with permission took back budwood of registered Suluk hybrids.
In Indonesia, they visited research parks and farms in Java hunting for durians that seemed to be self-pollinating. Without many bats to pollinate in Hawaii, Frankie was concerned that after all the effort of going to Asia, doing paperwork, and getting them back to Hawaii, his trees should actually be able to produce fruit.
One of the stand-outs was a seedling tree growing alone in the middle of a tea plantation at a high elevation. It produced every year, alone, and had for generations. Frankie took some seeds, and that tree now grows in the backside of his property. He calls it “Ciliwung” after the region between Depok and Bogor.
Overall, he says that Indonesia was his favorite place to Fruit Hunt. “They have so much diversity, and every part of Indonesia has their own varieties,” he explained.
Today he has still has a number of Indonesian durian survivors — including Bintal Mas, Sunan, Sukun, Petruk, Sitebel and Si Mas (a D. kutejensis hybrid).
“We had Hepe but it died,” he said.
Out of all his durian collections, the Sitebel might be the tree with which he is most pleased. “That one came out really good,” he said. “Really good.”
Visiting the Oahu Durian Orchard
When we visited in late November 2021, Frankie wasn’t sure we would find any durians on the ground. A summer season had just ended, and the next batch didn’t look scheduled to start dropping until January.
Luckily his niece Ramani was totally willing to take us out to see the trees and try our luck.
And we were lucky!
On the first day of the new season, we found no less than 4 durians on the ground, just waiting and smelling heavenly. What luck!
It’s like the durians wanted you to try them, Lynn commented later.
But it might be more due to Ramani’s hard work. In 2019, she started hand-pollinating the durians. Many durian trees that hadn’t fruited yet when I visited in 2016 had started producing.
This is probably his favorite tree, Ramani commented as we stepped beneath the shade of the Sitebel.
It’s among one of the oldest and biggest durian trees at Frankie’s Nursery, and was the 2nd tree to make fruit after that first Monthong. For 30 years it has reliably born fruit every year. And as Frankie kept repeating, “it came out really good.”
Sitebel is a local variety from Java, Indonesia. The name is actually Si Tebel, which means “Mr. Thick.”
Frankie’s tree was sourced from a collector in Queensland who sent the budwood by mail. At that time, QDPI (Australia Ag Dept) wasn’t recommending Sitebel, describing it as watery, so Frankie was a little nervous about growing it.
But Sitebel turned out to be a wonderful surprise. Not only did the tree fruit reliably, appearing to be self-pollinating, the durian flesh became thick, sticky and not watery at all. It has smallish seeds, contributing to its thickness, and a pleasantly mild, caramelized-milk sweetness.
The durian I was perhaps most excited to have found was Petruk, which wasnt’t fruiting yet when I first visited in 2016.
Thanks to Ramani’s pollination work, in 2021 the tree was full of fruits.
Petruk is a mystery I’ve been chasing in the Jepara region of Indonesia since 2012. I’ve tasted it only once, at a friend’s garden in Bogor.
The problem is that the name “Petruk” has become ubiquitous for pretty much any durian the vendor wants extra money for, while the true-Petruk tree died and the genetics were lost.
Frankie got the Petruk in the 1990’s from the Makasari Gardens, a reputable botanical garden and nursery. So it’s possible he has one of the last surviving true-Petruk trees in the entire world. Was I excited to taste this durian? Yes. Very much. Extremely much.
We paid $13.99 per lb for this Petruk durian, took it home and shared it with friends over some kava. It was too special to consume alone.
It was a good durian. Sticky, milky, condensed-milk sweet, but with normal sized seeds. I was honestly not sure it was true to type, as I’ve only had one and I remember Petruk having a darker yellow color. Color can be affected by fertilizer and climate, so it’s hard to determine without comparing it with a lot of other Petruks, and that’s probably never going to happen.
Over the last 30 years, Frankie’s has supplied durian trees to all of the Hawaiian islands. For example, if you find an A69 or a Monthong or a Chanee on a farm on Big Island, it’s likely the genetics originated from Frankie.
It’s what makes him the Godfather of Hawaiian Durian.
Today, Frankie is less active selling durian trees than previously.
The USDA has changed the rules, making it more difficult to acquire import permits for live trees and budwood. Malaysia and Thailand have also changed their rules for exporting and acquiring phytosanitary permits.
It’s possible that what Hawaii has now may be what Hawaii has in the future.
And that’s how Frankie’s Nursery is Legend and will continue to be a Legend among the durian lovers and fruit lovers of Hawaii, providing the most variety of species from the most places to people who’d like a tasty piece of the world in their own backyard.
You can still get trees by pre-order. Contact details below.
How To Visit Frankie’s Nursery
The Fruit Stand is open daily from 9AM to 3PM.
Make sure to follow Frankie’s Nursery on Instagram or call for appointments or orders. Their number is +1808-259-8737.
Durians are sold be pre-order only. So book in advance.