It’s natural to love fruit; fruits exploit our sweet tooth to make us accomplices in their reproductive game. We eat the flesh and disperse the seeds; if the plant is lucky those seeds grow. So it’s shocking when Milan Rupert, master grafter and head nurseryman at Kauai Nursery & Landscaping, tells me he used to hate fruit. “When I was growing up in Whittier, California, I hated fruit because we had a lemon orchard, and my job was to maintain it. It was the albatross around my neck!” he recalls. “But I was able to harvest and sell them, and that was my spending money.”
Sour as it was, his formative experience with citrus came to fruition years later. When he turned 18 he moved to Morocco with his father and traveled throughout Europe, picking up horticultural skills in Switzerland. Eventually he was hired to teach forestry in Senegal, but when it became apparent that Senegalese farmers were more interested in fruit than forests, Milan sharpened his grafting knife. “I learned as I taught. I had a sixteen-acre farm in the bush, got some improved citrus and mango and started my own nursery,” says Milan. When the economy collapsed following a separatist rebellion, Milan relocated to neighboring Gambia. After twenty-five years in Africa, he moved to Kaua‘i at the invitation of Lelan Nishek, owner of Kauai Nursery & Landscaping.
Strong and wiry, Milan often spends eight hours a day grafting in the blazing sun. He specializes in true dwarf varieties of citrus that are grafted onto ‘Flying Dragon,’ otherwise known as Chinese bitter orange. The payoff is small trees—ten to twelve feet tall—excellent for homeowners. Avocado, dwarf star fruit, sweetsop and breadfruit are part of Milan’s repertoire, as are grafted mangoes. “All mangoes flower at the same time, but they ripen at different times,” says Milan. For the mango fanatic who has limited planting space, Milan offers a “cocktail tree”: Hawai‘i-adapted wild rootstock grafted with three mango varieties on each tree. Each variety has a different ripening season, so from a single tree you get mangoes from early June until late September or even Christmas. “About seven years ago we brought in an incredible mango, ‘Maha Janok,’ from the orchards of the king of Thailand. It grows in clusters, beautifully colored, one of richest-tasting mangoes I’ve ever had,” says Milan. He isn’t limiting himself, though, to improving on the familiar. “We also brought in sweet tamarind and Malay apples, which are like mountain apples.”
Milan and the cadre of master grafters like him are working to increase the diversity of the fruits we encounter daily, to make sapodilla and loquats as common as avocadoes and guava. He does this through free monthly gardening workshops at the nursery (“I have groupies who come to every one,” he jokes) and with the new varieties he gets from Ken Love, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers and an evangelist of Island fruit diversity.
“We can grow better loquat, and we could be growing the best figs in the world because of our microclimates and elevations,” says Ken. “It’s really no different from what the ancient Hawaiians were doing with agriculture. If we apply it to tropical fruit, we could have fruit yearround, utilizing the different varieties and elevations.” At the top of Ken’s list for making Hawai‘i a fruitopia are grapes. Hawai‘i imports over nine million pounds of grapes each year, and Ken is researching seventy low-elevation varieties to meet that demand locally. “If Don Marín could grow grapes on Vineyard Avenue in the 1800s, we should be able to come up with some!” Ken says.
The state Department of Agriculture is also promoting exotic tropical fruits, such as jackfruit, calamonsie, bilimbi, jaboticaba, soursop, white sapote and many others. For the time being those strange fruits are a niche market. “They’re being used by chefs and are often sold at farmers markets,” says Ken, but that, he hopes, will change. “The more the consumer accepts them, the more the grocery stores will want them, the more trees get planted and the more sustainable small family farms become. We must make agriculture desirable and profitable for future generations. Fruit is, I feel, the best way to do that.”