“I’m going to grow the ‘Gros Michel’ commercially,” Gabe Sachter-Smith says, picking a petite, finger-length banana out of the bowl of his upturned hat and handing it to me.
My eyes widen. “You think you can really do that?”
Standing in the volcanic hollow of one of Oahu’s last banana farms, fraying fronds hang limp between our heads and a crystal sky. Toward the ocean, dry trade winds stir white specks into the turquoise Pacific. Here on the north shore, Sachter-Smith is working to establish Hawaii Banana Source, a new nursery and farm with 150 banana cultivars, the result of his research in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, southern China, Uganda, and, of course, Hawaii. A graduate of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences program with a thesis on banana diseases, Sachter-Smith is a banana expert.
“How?” I challenge him, stripping off the banana’s thin skin to reveal firm, almost crunchy, orange-yellow flesh. It’s sweet and tangy, with a bite like apple cider. But it isn’t a ‘Gros Michel’; less than 1 percent of all bananas grown in Hawaii are.
Arrival to the Americas
The ‘Gros Michel’ (Musa acuminata) was introduced to the Western world as a botanical curiosity from Thailand or Malaysia, arriving at the Caribbean island of Martinique in the early 1830s. Jean François Pouyat, a French botanist, found it there in 1835 and took clippings back to his plantation in Jamaica. Its name not yet firmly established, ‘Gros Michel’ was sometimes called ‘Pouyat,’ ‘Jamaican,’ or, when shipments to New York started around 1866, ‘Go Yark.’
It was the first kind of banana most Americans had ever eaten. It was fatter and slightly shorter than today’s supermarket variety — the ‘Cavendish’ — with a creamier, smoother texture and a fruitier aroma. “It is the chief banana of the American trade; excellent for shipping, fine in appearance, flavor fair, fruits well placed on bunch for convenient handling,” observed J.E. Higgins, Hawaii’s USDA researcher, in 1904. “This is the banana for the millions.”
By the time Higgins made his observation, the value of ‘Gros Michel’ imports to the United States was already worth $214 million in today’s currency. Millions of acres of ‘Gros Michel’ plantations transformed Central America, where bananas aren’t even native. Railroads crisscrossed Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua carrying ‘Gros Michel,’ and steamships outfitted with custom ripening rooms flooded the Atlantic seaboard.
Hawaii’s Historic Bananas
Unlike Central American and Caribbean countries, which had no native bananas, the ancient Hawaiians grew about 50 traditional cultivars, collectively called “mai’a”. They were carried in canoes from Polynesia a thousand years before. Each cultivar had its own mythology, use, and strict religious societal restrictions referred to as “kapu.”
Kapu permitted women to eat only two cultivars: the fat, fluffy cylinders of ‘Kaualau,’ or the squat, blunt ‘PŌpŌ‘ulu,’ its orange-sherbet-marshmallow flesh wrapped in leaves from the ti plant and baked in underground ovens called “imus.” All other cultivars were forbidden for women to indulge in. Queen Kapi’olani herself faced the punishment of “poverty, loss of rank, and to remain unmarried through life” when, as a young girl, she was caught sneaking an off-limits banana into the sea to secretly enjoy.
The stolen banana could have been a number of forbidden delicacies; perhaps it was a dark ‘ ‘Ele‘ele,’ reserved only for the highest-ranking ali’i (members of a noble family); or maybe a bright-yellow ‘Ilohena Lele,’ with salmon-pink interior, which was planted around Hawaiian temples called “heiaus” for religious ceremonies. It could have even been a delicious ‘Fe’i,’ a deep-orange cooking banana that oozes bright-red sap from the peel like drops of blood. It definitely wasn’t a ‘Gros Michel.’
The queen was long dead when, in 1903, Hawaii banana grower Philip Peck traveled to the banana-shipping port of Bluefields, Nicaragua, to report on the newly burgeoning banana industry. That’s where he found the ‘Gros Michel.’ He brought it back to Hawaii and christened the fruit ‘Bluefields.’ It was met with an unenthusiastic reception from local growers.
“Some articles talk about ‘Gros Michel’ like it’s this mythical holy grail that will change your life,” Sachter-Smith comments dryly. “But it’s more like, eh, that’s just a banana.”
Commercial banana growers of Hawaii preferred the ‘Cavendish,’ known locally as the ‘Chinese Dwarf.’ Widely recognized today as the ordinary supermarket banana, it arrived in Hawaii with sugar laborers from Tahiti about 1855. By 1864, it was being shipped to California. ‘Cavendish’ grew into small, compact trees that stayed upright in Oahu’s windy landscape — unlike the looming 18-foot-tall ‘Gros Michel’ — produced more bananas per plant, and, according to locals, tasted better.
The downside to ‘Cavendish’ was that Hawaiian shippers had to be careful how they packaged it. They couldn’t toss whole bunches onto ships, as was done in Jamaica and Central America, or the bananas would bruise and rot. ‘Cavendish’ was so fragile that they had to wrap each banana bunch in leaves and bind it with cords. Sometimes they even cut the bunches into smaller sizes, called “hands,” to pack carefully into crates. Approximately 100,000 Hawaiian-grown bunches went through this painstakingly slow process to depart Honolulu for California every year.
Shipping ‘Cavendish’ was a lot more work, but, at the time, it commanded a higher price for what was considered a premium product. Still, ‘Gros Michel’ was so popular on the U.S. mainland, and so easy to transport, that Hawaiian growers might have switched if Panama disease hadn’t changed everything.
Within a year of Peck’s return from Nicaragua, the tightly curled sheaths of young ‘Bluefields’ were withering, blackening, and dying. It was the soon-to-be infamous Panama disease, or fusarium wilt, and Hawaii’s own Higgins was one of the first in the world to identify it.
“A disease due to the presence of a fungus has been noticed in several parts of the islands during the past year,” wrote Higgins. “All plants affected with this disease should be destroyed. They are useless and are likely to prove a menace to other plants.”
His prediction was spot on. The young Hawaiian ‘Bluefields’ weren’t the only bananas decimated by the disease; Panama disease ripped through the native bananas as well. Like the native people themselves, mai’a bananas began to disappear.
The fungus quickly spread from Hawaii to Central America, and tore through their ‘Gros Michel’ plantations. Panicked banana-growers cleared millions more acres of “clean” rainforest to start fresh, only to find that the disease had struck again.
Only the ‘Cavendish’ seemed resistant. In a stroke of luck, Hawaiian growers found that their main export was not only safe, it was worth more as Central American bananas failed. When Richard Ha, the former owner of what was Hawaii’s largest banana plantation, Mauna Kea Banana Company, planted out his family’s 25-acre farm on the Big Island in 1975, Hawaiian bananas still seemed like a promising industry. By the time he closed his business in 2016, he had 600 acres, almost exclusively ‘Cavendish.’
“We didn’t bother with the ‘Bluefields’ because by the time we started in the late 1970s, we knew already that that wasn’t going to work. So we went straight to ‘Cavendish,’” he explained.
Ha wanted to try growing the native bananas of Hawaii, but it just wasn’t possible. No commercial banana grower could consider them an option.
“I looked at the ancient varieties and thought, ‘Would I put those in my canoe?’ The answer is yeah, I would take those. But those aren’t options anymore because they’re susceptible to Panama wilt. We had a nice harvest of the traditional ‘Mai’a Maoli’, until Panama wilt killed all of them.”
By the 1960s, ‘Gros Michel’ was gone from supermarkets. But as Central American plantations began exporting ‘Cavendish’ as well, Hawaiian growers discovered that their once-premium product was worth just a few cents per pound.
“You’re competing against scale for Central and South America with really huge plantations, and that lowers their cost,” says Ha. “We couldn’t export to the mainland because that would put us in competition with all of Central America, and we had a hard enough time competing for business just within Hawaii.”
Central American bananas began appearing in Hawaiian supermarkets for lower prices than the local ‘Cavendish.’ Then, to make matters worse, in 1989, banana trees in Oahu stopped growing, their stunted leaves staying near ground-height and never forming flowers or fruits. The disease was quickly identified as Banana bunchy top virus (BBTV), and it hit Hawaiian banana farms far harder than Panama disease. By 1995, it was on the Big Island, radiating slowly outward from Kona.
“We were protected where we were for a while,” Ha says. “But we knew where the virus was because we could see it moving through trees in people’s backyards. Once we saw it coming up the coast toward us, we knew it was inevitable, it would get us.”
When Ha finally left his farm, he single-handedly halved the Hawaiian banana industry. “The reason we got out was because we saw so much risk on the horizon,” Ha says. “I wouldn’t do it again.”
New Banana Beginnings
Sachter-Smith sees his new banana business differently. “There are so many growers who have just quit growing bananas, and I see a huge potential,” he says. “The market is wide open to those up to the task. To me, the future of growing bananas in Hawaii is really bright.”
Farm-to-table restaurants and health-food cafes hunting locally grown bananas have already reached out to Sachter-Smith. It’s for them that he’s growing the ‘Gros Michel.’ This shift in consumerism will be difficult — even with popular interest in the old canoe plants of Hawaii, businesses and customers are used to one kind of banana. He says the key is helping the public understand that the ‘Gros Michel’ “is essentially a ‘Cavendish’ equivalent for all practical purposes.”
He doesn’t expect it to be as easy as the old-timers remember, before the days of BBTV and Panama disease. He will quarantine his ‘Gros Michel’ in carefully maintained 1-acre plots broken up by other cultivars resistant to multiple diseases. Though ‘Gros Michel’ is susceptible to Panama disease, luckily, it has resistance to BBTV.
“I spent four years of my life in grad school studying bunchy top and fighting it out,” Sachter-Smith says. “I felt like I came out of it — maybe I didn’t win, but I feel like we came to an understanding, and that there’s a way forward.”