Passion Fruit

It’s easy to see how missionaries associated “passion” with this exquisite-tasting fruit.

Although it’s a perennial favorite in the Islands, you’ll never see passion fruit piled in a pyramid in the supermarket. Unlike bananas and pineapples, or mangoes in season, lilikoi is harder to come by.

If you’re lucky, you may find a tiny basket of lilikoi at a farmer’s market, a roadside stand or Chinatown stall; otherwise, your best bet is to pick lilikoi in the wild, cadge it from a neighbor, or grow it in your backyard — not entirely handy if you need it for tonight’s lū‘au cake.

True, lilikoi puree, frozen concentrate and dehydrated powder are available in stores, but these products don’t match the taste of fresh lilikoi. So, one must wonder: Where are the lilikoi? The short answer is that very few farmers in Hawai‘i grow it. The long answer, however, is more complicated.

Passiflora, the plant that produces a spectacular one- to three-inch flower with yellow or purple fruit, was first seen by 16th century Spanish explorers in South America. Catholic missionaries, astonished by the structure of this flower, assigned religious meaning to its parts to parallel the Passion of Christ, from which the plant gained its name,
passus (suffering) flora (flower). To them, the five stamens represented the hammers used to drive nails into Christ’s hands; the five petals and five sepals, the ten apostles; the many mitten-shaped leaves, the pointed hands of the accusers; and the ominous, coiling tendrils simulated whips used by the persecutors. To the missionaries, the appearance of this flower in South America was seen as a sign that the native peoples were ready for Christ. When the priest Jacomo Bozio published “F/os Passionis” in 1610 with poems and illustrations, the world of passiflora blossomed.

From that point on, adventurers, travelers, seamen and horticulturists carried seeds from South America to ports around the world. Before long, the passion flower was being cultivated in almost every tropical country (today there are over 500 varieties).

The fruit of the plant — it has a different name in every country — is now a major commercial crop in Central and South America (it is the national fruit of Columbia), the Caribbean, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Samoa, Fiji, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Passion fruit seeds of the purple variety (
Passiflora.edulis sims) were first planted on Maui in 1880 by Eugene Delemar who brought them from Australia. He planted them at his ranch in an area still known as “Lilikoi Gulch,” after which the fruit was named.

The vine quickly spread beyond Maui and, before long, lilikoi was picked in the wild or grown in home gardens, and was incorrectly presumed to be an indigenous Hawaiian plant. In the days of yore, to quench their thirst, Hawaiians would pick a lilikoi off the vine, squeeze it between their knees to break it open and then “suck it up” to savor its sweet/tart taste and beguiling fragrance. Locals quickly learned to make pure juice, the basis of all lilikoi recipes, by mashing the pulp with the seeds and straining out the juice. (Roughly 12 lilikoi per cup of juice.)

Purple lilikoi remained a local treat until 1923, when the first seeds of yellow passion fruit (
Passiflora.edulis.f. flavicarpa) were donated to the Hawaiian Agricultural Experiment Station. Farmers quickly took to this new variety, which is more pest-resistant than the purple fruit.

It seemed ideal: A swiftly growing plant with few pests that was efficiently pollinated by the carpenter bee, and bore abundant fruit within two years. Through the 1930s and ’40s, farmers gradually became more enthusiastic about growing lilikoi; some even thought it could become a profitable crop.

In the 1950s, lilikoi farming truly caught on. By 1953, 50 acres on the Big Island of Hawai‘i were planted and, in 1954; island processors were predicting a Mainland market of 2 million pounds of juice per year. By 1955, Hawai‘i could boast 500 acres planted in lilikoi with a potential yield of 10,000 pounds per acre — a market value of $1 million.

Not surprisingly, in 1955, Honolulu Advertiser readers were told “Passion Fruit Looms As Basis of $25 Million Industry for Islands,” and attendees of the Ice Cream Convention in St. Louis heard that “passion fruit is the best new flavor introduced to the ice cream trade in a half-century!” As a further sign of progress, growers and processors (there were 50 growers and six processors on O‘ahu in the ’50s) met in Waimānalo to form a lilikoi association that would serve to advance their industry.

Unfortunately, by 1956 it was clear that the lilikoi industry had serious problems. The volume of lilikoi production was not large enough to justify the expense of mechanical processing machines. In addition, coordinating the efforts of growers, processors, shippers and distributors, along with advertising and promotion campaigns, proved too difficult.

The last straw for lilikoi farmers in Hawai‘i was the success of the passion fruit industry in southern California, where farmers could easily grow, process, advertise, promote and ship fruit to mainland U.S. customers. The demand for Hawaiian lilikoi evaporated.

But this is shifting. Ken Love, president of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Association, who grows lilikoi on the Big Island and produces his own line of lilikoi products, says everybody wants lilikoi, but we just can’t grow enough of it.

Let’s hope that local farmers will try again to grow lilikoi on a large scale and revive it as a profitable crop. If everyone wants lilikoi, there’s certainly a market for the product.

Happily, until then, we can still enjoy fresh lilikoi when we can find it. Pick it in the wild. Grow your own. Cadge it from a neighbor. Or buy it online. Then, yes: you’ll have lilikoi!