Ark of Taste
Ele Ele "Black Hawaiian" Banana
Musa 'Ele Ele'
The history of the Maia Maoli Ele Ele or the Ele Ele Banana is intertwined with the earliest history of Hawaii. Ele Ele is thought to be one of the first canoe plants brought to Hawaii with the original settlers from the Marquesas islands in the mid 700’s. The banana of the Alii, royalty, it is unclear if this banana came with the first Hawaiians in the eighth century or slightly later. Much through early Hawaiian history the Ele Ele was the most treasured of bananas, as evinced by this 1600’s chant offered to the god Kanaloa: Ka maia nui e The Great Banana ka maia nui e The Great Banana He umi eka ke hua It will yield 10 hands Aole hiki ke amo The bunch cannot be carried Elua kanaka hiki ke amo It will take two men to carry it hiki inoino With difficulty Originally, the banana was grown on all of the Hawaiian islands but production centered on the Big Island of Hawaii in what is now the Captain Cook and the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden. The Ele Ele died off in 1992 but was re-introduced by Ken Love after a stand was found in 2004. It is found to a lesser extent on Molokai Island.
In Hawaiian, maia means banana and maoli is a group in which Ele Ele is a variety. Maoli covers about 25 different types of bananas, many extinct and many endangered like the Ele Ele. In the Maoli group of Hawaiian Bananas, there were originally fourteen types with only eight remaining such as the Maoli Hai, Maoli Hai kea, Maoli Ae ae, Maoli Green-red and Maoli lahi lahi. Ele Ele is considered critically endangered and even though many new farmers have expressed a desire for Ele Ele bananas, the keikis, young banana plants, are hard to come by due to disease in the parent plants from pests and fungi. Taking “keikis’, baby plants, growing from the rhizome and planting them some distance from the original growth propagates Ele Ele. This is done every five years or less in order to prevent the spread of diseases.
Ele Ele is slightly longer and fuller than the average commercial banana. Skin color is deep yellow with a slight orange tint. The slight orange is obvious on the inner fruit as well. The Ele Ele’s richness of flavor and firm but less starchy texture separate it from other Maoli bananas. When slightly overripe the center of the Ele Ele will sometimes gel creating an extremely sweet treat. Its ability to stay sweet and maintain its firm yet not starchy texture is a fairly unusual and coveted aspect . While the Ele Ele’s unique flavor is on the sweet side, the still green banana is often cooked and used as a vegetable. The ripe fruit has slight citrus and cream overtones. When the fruit does become available it is incredibly well received. Perhaps the most striking part of ele ele is the jet black tree trunk, which is unmistakable when found in the wild. Seeing the Ele Ele in its regal form one understands why it was considered the banana of royalty.
The Ele Ele is endangered and at risk, because it is very susceptible to nematodes, borers and a host of banana specific pathogens like Buchy Top virus. It’s been in rapid decline since 1992 and there is minimal effort made to protect Ele Ele and other Hawaiian bananas. Protecting the existing trees has been the focus of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers (HTFG) group and a number of others who work to spread the small trees around the state to safe locations. Most growers’ efforts are put into propagation of the banana. As of 2015, efforts are underway to propagate and spread Ele Ele trees to a wider area by transplanting young banana plants from their original stands every five years. All the stands currently being harvested are treated with great respect and are monitored by members of the fruit growers group HTFG and others dedicated to the protection of the species.
The challenge in expanding production of Ele Ele is the lack of funding for tissue culture. Currently the limited baby bananas are distributed when available, but this is limited to perhaps as few as a handful of disease free plants each year. It’s also limited to botanic gardens and private collections. Tissue culture would enable the distribution of Ele Ele to farmers in order to get it into production. Sales of production bananas have limited to a few farmers markets in Kona, Maui and Kauai.
As of 2014, the Ele Ele was sold at very few farmers markets and only one grocery store. There are so few plants left that fruit is a rarity and often in demand by collectors and hotels that wish to explain cultural assets to their guests.