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Most of Molokai‘i's prime ‘opihi grounds are only accessible by boat. Jordan Spencer, just offshore of Wailau Valley, September 2006
Vol. 9, No. 6
December/January 2007

  >>   Hearts of Palm
  >>   On the Rocks
  >>   Top Flight

Hearts of Palm (Page 3)


Jeff Marcus

“This is my church, these are our children and this is our religion,” he says as we walk through his property. And those children just keep getting delivered—literally. At one point a DHL car pulls up, bearing seed from Argentina. “I’m not totally sure what it is,” Jeff admits. “It’s from a collector who goes all over South America and finds stuff.” Like most everything that winds up here, it’ll be planted, and when the time is right, its seed will be harvested, taken from munificent inflorescences that routinely produce thousands of seeds. Whether as small as a peppercorn or as large as a baseball, the seed will be cleaned, soaked, hydrated, heated and sprouted. Floribunda Palms now produces 6,000 to 10,000 baby palms a month.

Why, I ask, is all of this conservation and regeneration happening on the Big Island of all places? Turns out its climate is near perfect for palms. “They love water, and they love good drainage,” Jeff explains. Hawai‘i Island, with its porous rock and abundance of rain, is just what the botanist ordered. And so Jeff is thriving. His obsession is diversity, and he’s hell-bent on getting growers to try new things. “I see the same seven basic palms everywhere,” he says, “ and it makes me want to gag.” At his nursery, he shows me hundreds of species I’ve never heard of, let alone seen before, fantastic trees including an “old man palm” from Cuba, so named because it grows a hairy beard; a dainty little cluster palm from the Philippines with bright purple crown shafts; and a palm from Madagascar that grows a unique leaf with a little window right in the middle. Jeff’s seedling list runs four pages of densely packed eight-point type, and there’s no doubt that he’s the most fanatical HIPSter there is; everyone I talked to agreed on that point. Jeff’s own take? “The difference between me and everyone else is that I’ve taken the time to go out into the bush and get leeches in my eyes.”

Jan Anderson—remember, the Canadian with the linguistically gifted two-year-old?—runs a nursery, too. Hers is a few miles from Jeff’s, down in Kapoho at sea level. If Jeff is all about fire, Jan is all about earth. If Jeff showed me how valuable this work is, Jan showed me its enchantment. Both she and her place feel like they have a touch of magic to them—though perhaps it’s just the captivating mystery that comes with any immersion into the natural world. Still, there is something at Jan’s, a sense of knowing, a sense of peace. The plants here like where they live. When Jan shows me a doum palm native to Africa, she tells me a story that evokes that: “In 1990 this was just one little strap leaf. I wasn’t sure if it would make it. I put it in the ground, and it didn’t look good. One day my son, then six, got into the truck and found some matches and started burning the grass. He burned the strap leaf, too, and I thought, ‘It just wasn’t meant to live.’ Six weeks later, a huge new leaf came out. And I come to find out that this palm is from the savannah, and it needs fire to start the next phase of its growth.”