story by Rose Kahele
photo by Laura Plageman
You might call it a change of heart. The affectionately named heart of palm, the fibrous core of the crown of certain kinds of palm trees, used to be called something else: “swamp cabbage.” It was once a famine food to the desperately poor who felled palms in the swamps of Florida during the Great Depression. But after those hard times, gourmets discovered the heart’s subtle mix of flavors reminiscent of asparagus, artichoke and mushroom.
By the 1950s, the hard-to-harvest delicacy was being showcased in a decadent-sounding but easily prepared dish called “millionaire’s salad.” Today, chefs and foodies are increasingly using heart of palm—sliced, diced, blanched and lightly sautéed—in salads, stir frys and casseroles, any dish that calls for a stalk vegetable with a little class.
At the center of this quiet food movement is the 110-acre Wailea Agricultural Group, located above the Hamakua Coast, 14 miles north of Hilo. With thirty-five acres of peach palms (the fast-growing source of the delectable heart) the farm produces approximately 12 tons of fresh heart of palm a year, making it the country’s largest producer of the high-end vegetable.
WAG’s Fresh Hawaiian Heart of Palm, which starts wholesale at $8 a pound, is used in upscale restaurants from the Kohala Coast to the East Coast, like Alan Wong’s in Honolulu and The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. WAG also offers its product once a month at the Waimea farmers’ market on the Big Island and every other week in Honolulu at Kapi‘olani Community College’s farmers’ market.
The delicacy isn’t the only thing winning hearts and palates. The peach palm itself is proving to be one of the Islands’ most sustainable crops: It doesn’t die after giving up its heart. It just sprouts new shoots which can be harvested nine months later. Moreover, the bark and fronds are rich in nutrients, so after a peach palm is felled and bucked, its green waste fortifies the soil and nourishes the plants around it.
“Soil scientists from UH found that our soil is actually more fertile now than when we started ten years ago,” says Lesley Hill, who runs WAG’s operations with partner Michael Crowell. “That was nice to hear, because our main concern is stewardship of the land. We believe that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.”
Wailea Agricultural Group