When she came to Puna in the 1970s with a degree in philosophy and a dream to live off the land, Susi Hamilton hardly expected to become the down-to-earth businesswoman she is today. She and husband Bob own PLANT IT HAWAII, one of the largest wholesalers of fruit trees in the state. They specialize in fruits that are easy to grow: citrus, avocado, lychee, jaboticaba, fig, abiu and star apple. Thirty-five years ago there were few locally grown varieties of fruit available, so Susi traveled to Southeast Asia. She grafted varieties she thought should be available to everyone, such as ‘Kaimana’ lychee. Today ‘Kaimana’ is probably the most desired fruit her nursery sells. “It’s great in size and flavor, and the season is short, May through June,” says Susi.
The Hamiltons’ Kurtistown nursery has since expanded into a forty-acre operation that includes a family-run farm, Hula Brothers, which ships rambutan, lychee and longan to the continental United States. The nursery is open to the public two times a year, which gives Susi the opportunity to share her knowledge and to fulfill one of her ambitions: to get more fruit into people’s yards. “It gives people an opportunity to talk with the growers. The ten people who work here know the fruit inside and out. Some have worked here over twenty years. And I don’t think every business has as many hands-on, scrappy kinds of people. It’s been one of my babies, and I want to put as much as I can into it,” she declares.
In her own yard Susi grows lemon, lime and tangelo. “I think every yard should have a ‘Minneola’ tangelo. It’s by far the richest-flavored citrus, though it’s hard to peel because most of the juice runs down your arm, but the juice is unbelievable! There’s so much—two fruits give you a big glassful.” Susi also likes ‘Kahalu‘u’ avocado. “It’s nutty, creamy, fleshy and small-seeded, but it doesn’t bear heavily,” she says. “But if you have to plant just one, plant a ‘Sharwil.’ It’s long-bearing—five months. You’ll get so much fruit, and you’ll get it every year.” In rainy Hilo you might not get many mangoes, but Susi says you can grow some of the best durian and mangosteen in the state, which command a hefty price at market. But the true value of any fruit, she believes, isn’t in its market price. “I hope residents continue to plant more of what they want to eat, whether it be abiu, lychee or other fruit. I hope to see them growing more of what they want to eat in my lifetime,” says Susi.
What’s the secret to growing healthy fruit trees? It’s a good idea to first have a soil analysis done by the UH Extension Service so that you know how to prepare the site before planting. Otherwise you might end up with a tree that produces little or no fruit. “You get one chance. Read about it,” Susi advises. Sometimes a little extra love doesn’t hurt, either. “I talk to my trees. I write poetry to my nutmeg tree. I love the rich warm seed, its soft blanket, the red lace inside. I dance around my tree and listen to the birds … and the quiet.”