By Jan TenBruggencate

Jan 2If you plant a fruit tree, you’re committing an act of faith in the future.

And when you pick fruit from a mossy-barked old tree, it’s appropriate to thank the good person who had the forethought to plant it.

I can remember clambering into a Molokai jungle nearly 60 years ago, and finding a tree bearing sweet oranges. I was a kid, but I can remember being amazed that this tree dripping in fruit was growing untended and apparently abandoned.

It was in an area where coastal residents had once lived, but the tree was a big one and may have dated back to the late 1900s. The oranges must have been particularly tasty to those early residents, in a time of no refrigeration, when probably the only sweets to be had were rare store-bought hard candy.

There was a tangerine tree growing on the rim of Kilohana Crater on Kaua‘i, its fruit full of seeds but luscious with dark red-orange flesh — perfect for juicing. It had originally been planted, as best I can determine, about 1899. I surreptitiously air-layered that tree, and its offspring provided me with tangerine juice for years. I hope the tangerines are still bringing smiles to the faces of the kids who live in my old neighborhood today.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed several residents who as kids lived in Grove Farm’s old Puhi Camp. They remembered going to a place they called Fruit Valley, where they would load up on strange and wonderful fruits. Some of the fruits they described, I can’t recognize from their descriptions.

Some of the same kids remembered going to the site of an old plantation camp in Halehaka Valley, where they found mango and custard apple, and bananas and other fruits to brighten up a hot summer morning hike.

I have climbed high in remote Hawaiian valleys and found bananas, probably the offspring of bananas planted by early Hawaiian hikers or taro growers or gatherers of these areas. For them, this was sustenance when far from home. For me, it was the same.

There were times 60 or 70 years ago when roads were windy and rough, and a trip across the island was a long one. I talked with an old-timer who remembered stopping near Halfway Bridge during a long drive. In the summer, the stop was for mountain apples, red and juicy, which grew thick in the region.

The mountain apples have since been largely overgrown by other tree species, but there are still a few there in that valley, and in many Hawaiian valleys. The season isn’t long, but when these ‘ohi‘a ai are ripe, it’s always worth a stop.

And when you pick one, say a prayer of thanks to the person who planted the seed.

One more note before I close, about private property. Seldom will a landowner turn down a request for a fruit from a tree. But it’s local custom that you always, always ask before picking.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.