Maiapilo in Hawaiian Culture: I’m often asked why I became interested in native Hawaiian plants. I must admit my initial interest was their endemism and a desire to help save these unique plants from extinction. However, in addition to this, what sustains my interest today is the many meanings and mo‘olelo (stories) associated with native plant names. Maiapilo is one such example. When Hawaiians first saw this endemic plant they noticed the small oblong fruit. The fruit is green when immature and growing, turning yellow when mature and ripe. It must have reminded them of a fruit they knew well, the mai‘a (banana). However, unlike the mai‘a fruit with its sweet fragrance and taste, when they peeled away the skin of the maiapilo fruit, the flesh had a foul odor (pilo). Putting the two words together gives you an excellent description of the plant: the plant with fruits that look and turn yellow like a banana but smell bad when you peel them – the stinky banana plant.
Marie Neal (In Gardens of Hawai‘i) states that Hawaiians used maiapilo to heal broken bones by applying the pounded plant to body joints (but not directly on the injured site). Flower buds of a maiapilo relative, Capparis spinosa, are harvested and eaten worldwide; we refer to the buds as capers.
Collecting Seeds: I most often find ripe fruits during the fall but have collected as early as May and as late as January. Look for the yellow-orange mature fruit. Unfortunately, even though humans find maiapilo fruit disagreeable, birds do not and often you will only find the hollowed-out skin of the fruit. (Securing a small net bag around the immature fruit such as the one pictured to collect hao fruits is one way to discourage hungry birds.) Still, look carefully because the birds sometimes leave a few seeds behind. Another source is the older, dried and brown fruits (sometimes on the ground beneath the plant). These too may have seeds missed by the birds. However, if you collect these older fruits be sure to thoroughly clean and sterilize the seeds. Finally, green but full-size fruits will ripen and yield viable seed if you treat the fruit as a cut flower, placing the fruit’s stem in water and recutting and replacing the water each day. However, this will only work if the fruit truly is full-size and not still maturing. Often, a ripe fruit will contain both viable black seeds (that look a bit like a tiny snail shell) and nonviable white/yellow seeds; viable seeds will sink if cleaned and placed in a pan of water.
Growing from Seed: Fresh maiapilo seeds seem to germinate more quickly than cleaned seeds stored (five years and counting) in the refrigerator. If you use refrigerator-stored seeds, let them initially rehydrate for a day outside the refrigerator, then, soak the seeds an additional 2-3 days in a shallow pan of water. Using either Method One or Two, maiapilo takes 1-4 weeks to sprout. If this is your first time with maiapilo, I encourage you to use Method One; you’ll likely get a greater percentage of seeds sprouting and you can better protect the seeds and young seedlings from predators such as slugs, insects, birds and mice. Very young seedlings are also susceptible to damping-off fungi, particularly, if watered too frequently. Either foliar or controlled-release fertilizer works well to speed the growth of young seedlings through this vulnerable period. Occasionally, spider mites will attack seedlings in the nursery; repeated sprayings of horticultural oil will normally control this pest. When the main truck/stem of your maiapilo is about ¼ inch in diameter, you can consider planting it into the garden or repotting.
Growing from Cuttings: I have never grown maiapilo from cuttings but others have. According to them it’s not that difficult provided you have a mist chamber (see Plants from Cuttings).
Growth in the Garden: While the majority of native Hawaiian plants look their best during the cool wet cloudy winter, maiapilo is a clear exception being exceptionally vigorous and beautiful in the middle of the hot dry sunny summer. Therefore, pick a location in your garden accordingly. If your plant is small, consider protecting it from larger pests (e.g., snails, mice) with a wire cage until it has grown large enough to endure such occasional abuse. Good soil drainage is important; planting your maiapilo on a mound of cinder and soil is an easy way to meet this requirement if you’re in doubt. Sometimes, even when done with care, a newly-transplanted maiapilo will drop all its leaves. Don’t panic. Continue to lightly water the plant once a week and it will likely flush out with a new leaf set within a month. Once establish, cut way back on watering. Overwatering is a sure way to kill a maiapilo. With lots of sun, your plant should grow quickly and begin flowering and fruiting within a year or two. While maiapilo has a long flowering period, the plants I’ve grown do occasionally take a break, so, don’t expect to see those big fragrant flowers every evening. Treated properly (i.e., full sun, good drainage, little water), maiapilo have a moderate lifespan of ten-plus years.
Diseases & Pests: The most serious killer of maiapilo in the garden is overwatering. Cabbage butterfly caterpillars and leafcutter bees sometimes target maiapilo leaves making them unsightly. Powdery mildew will afflict maiapilo mistakenly planted in a wet shady site. After more than a decade of observation, I still cannot explain why, occasionally, one or two of the plant’s stems will quickly yellow and wither, although this phenomenon is more common during Hawai‘i’s wetter winter season. Until someone does figure this out, the safest thing to do is quickly prune and discard the dead stem.
Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū