by Diana Duff
Special To West Hawaii Today
Sunday, December 5, 2010 7:40 AM HST
Many gardeners in Hawaii have become native plant enthusiasts. More and more people are awakening to the beauty of our native species and learning about them and the vigilance required to save them from harm or eventual extinction. Events like Arbor Day at Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, offering free native plants and information on growing them, help folks learn ways to grow and care for native plants. Interest in these plants, which have thrived in our native forests for millennia, helps raise awareness of the threats a multitude of invasive species pose to them.
One particularly threatening species, the autograph, or signature, tree (Clusia rosea) caught the notice of Darcy Ames, who has witnessed firsthand the encroachment of this species on the ohia forests near her home.
“When I first bought property in Holualoa, I thought the autograph tree was quite lovely,” Ames said. “After a few years of experience, inspection and investigation, I began to realize this tree was capable of destroying the habitat of our ohia and other native species unless we began a proactive course against it.
“After witnessing the damage it can cause, I can honestly say that I hate what this plant is capable of doing. Autograph seeds can be dropped by birds and root as much as 20 or 30 feet in the air in the crotch of an ohia tree.
Carambola is the pinup girl of tropical fruit, valued more for its comely shape (an unusual winged oval that yields starfish-like slices) and lovely skin (translucent and glossy, ripening to golden hues) than its substance.
Yet star fruit is more than a whimsical garnish for a cocktail. It can be a versatile cooking ingredient, and it is perfect for drying — an excellent option for home gardeners with a bumper crop.
I confess I had never been impressed with carambola’s flavor, finding the standard commercial variety, Arkin, blandly sweet. But then Mike Winterstein, a research technician at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s station at Chapman Field, gave me a taste of his favorite cultivar, the Fwang Tung.
I was blown away by its intense flavor, delicious sweet-tart balance and abundant juiciness. I could imagine adding slices of it to a shrimp dish flavored with vanilla and hot peppers or grilling it with fish or pork until just golden brown, basted with a bit of olive oil.
The Fwang Tung, a Thai native, is one of 22 cultivars at Chapman Field in Coral Gables. Its deep, unwieldy wings mean it probably will never have the commercial viability of the compact and packable Arkin, but the University of Florida’s Dr. Jonathan Crane foresees a boutique niche for such superlative fruits.
The story of carambola in Florida is intertwined with that of Miami-Dade’s distinguished Campbell family, beginning with the late Dr. Carl W. Campbell, a pioneering horticulturist. It was he, according to the University of Florida’s Dr. Jonathan Crane, who in 1965 “formally described, named and released Golden Star carambola,” the state’s first important commercial variety.
Campbell selected it from a group of trees grown from seed that had been introduced from Hawaii in 1935 at what is now the Subtropical Horticultural Research Station of the USDA Agricultural Research Service at Chapman Field. In his own backyard, Campbell planted the second grafted Golden Star in existence.
His son Richard, senior curator at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and a plant pioneer in his own right, has fond memories of that tree. As a teenager in the late 1970s, he would pick and pack its fruit and carry the cartons by bicycle to Brooks Tropicals trucks, which then carried them to markets in New York.
— MARICEL E. PRESILLA