Tropical Gardening: Many islanders live healthy eating well with low stress

Atrip to less industrialized tropical and subtropical regions of the world can be very enlightening in some unexpected ways. By visiting these places, we can learn more about what tropical fruits besides banana, breadfuit and coconut are used and how this is related to the health of the people.

The South Pacific is a great place to start.


Even though the populations of these islands are mostly Polynesian, they have been less affected by the modern junk food trends that Hawaii has experienced. The last time we traveled to French Polynesia, we spent most of the time in the Marquesas Islands, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. Folks in rural areas were mostly growing their own food, so seemed very healthy. Even folks in Papeete and Auckland appeared more healthy and happy compared with large city populations.

In Hawaii, we are fortunate to have the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Association educating and promoting tropical fruits. According to Ken Love, executive director, the association’s 28th Annual Conference is slated for Sept. 20-22 at Leeward Community College on Oahu. This will be followed by mini conferences Sept. 27 in Hilo and Sept. 28 in Kona. Check out their website at HTFG.org or call Ken at 323-2417 for details.

It seems big city people throughout the tropical world are stressed, and even though food variety might be available they often don’t eat in a healthy manner. Rural residents, on the other hand, might have less food variety and might even be eating fewer calories. Income by our standards might be limited, but it is surprising how healthy those who survive childhood diseases seem to be.

Lots of physical activity is certainly part of it, but diet also is a key. Besides the everyday menu of starches and very little red meat, country folks generally eat lots of fruit instead of candy, pies and other sweets.

Many of these fruits are high in vitamins, minerals and energy. So the lesson for us might be instead of pies, cakes and cookies, consider fruit for your sweets. Those vitamin pills on your shelf, besides being pretty expensive, are not nearly as palatable and eye appealing as fresh fruit, especially when it is grown in your own backyard.

You can purchase books about fruits of Hawaii that give descriptions, nutritive value and uses for most of these fruits from local garden centers and bookstores.

Take Vitamin A for instance. One papaya is supposed to contain 4,000 IU’s (International Units) while 5,000 IUs per day is listed as adequate. Passion fruit and relatives such as banana poka, poha, avocado and Surinam cherry are other South American fruits high in Vitamin A. Other South American fruits to consider are rollinia, cherimoya and white sapote, just to mention a few.

Some fruits famous for their contribution of Vitamin C are guava, papaya, soursop, poha, various cactus fruit and passion fruit. One of the fruits highest in Vitamin C is the acerola, or Barbados cherry. The fruit is not a cherry but a member of the Malpighia family. The family is a fairly familiar ornamental shrub in many gardens and bears the highest known Vitamin C content fruit. As a comparison, oranges average 49 milligrams of Vitamin C per 100 grams of edible fruit (100 grams is about 3 1/2 ounces), while the Barbados cherry, picked as they are turning green to red, average more than 4,000 units per 100 grams.

Don’t forget the pineapple. Even though we see them commonly in the stores, it is fun to grow your own. The pineapple will produce several crops a year if you have a large number of plants; varieties such as Red Spanish, Smooth Cayenne, Sugarloaf, Queen and Abakka are found in our gardens. When grown in the home garden, they tend to be much sweeter than the commercial fruit found at the supermarket.

In addition, there are dozens of lesser known fruits, such as the Mountain Apple and its relatives, that make outstanding ornamental and fruit producing shrubs and trees. Although the Mountain Apple is native to India and Malaya, Jaboticaba, Surinam cherry and Grumichana also are very attractive with delicious fruits. The common Surinam cherry has fruit that vary from tasty to terrible depending on seedlings.

Another favorite in its homeland is the Sapodilla, or chico, chicle or chewing gum tree, from Central America. It is an attractive shade tree that grows to about 30 feet. The dark brown fruit is about the size of an orange and tastes like a combination of brown sugar and butter. It will tolerate wet or dry conditions and grow from sea level to 2,000 feet.

And of course, don’t forget the many varieties of mango, banana and citrus.

Before you plant, remember the adaptability of a fruit tree to moisture, temperature and wind conditions will be important factors determining selection. For example, West Indian avocado would have a chance of success in warmer, lower areas but would be a definite gamble in high, wet inland locations. By the same token, Mexican strains are desirable in the higher, cooler areas.

In addition to adaptability to temperature conditions, there are other factors to consider in selecting fruit trees.

Fruits for home use should be selected on the basis of eating quality rather than their market appearance or shipping endurance. Pollination requirements must not be overlooked in selecting fruits. Solo papaya need no pollinators, but avocado varieties could be chosen based on seasonal availability. Instead of three sharwil trees, why not choose malama, sharwil and yamagata so you have fresh avocados throughout eight months instead of just two.

Pest resistance as a factor in selecting fruit trees is more important to the homeowner than the commercial grower because the commercial grower has equipment for pest control while the homeowner might not. The less pesticides required, the better.


Selection of fruits for the home grounds should assure a long season of available fruit by use of a series of varieties of early, midseason and late production within the range for the species.

There are hundreds of fruits that can be grown in our Hawaii gardens. If you need help selecting fruit trees, contact your local University of Hawaii Extension Service Office, Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, nursery or garden store.