Cacao … what’s bamboo, tea and coffee got to do with it?


Cacao, bamboo, tea and coffee all grow well in Hawaii, and this week two events are planned that celebrate these fascinating plants.

The Big Island Chocolate Festival is slated Thursday through Saturday. The activities start with tours of cacao farms and a factory. The second day includes events at the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii, with a culinary student competition. The final day is the Gala Fundraiser featuring unlimited chocolate tastings and savory pupu from 25 professional chefs. Live entertainment by Yisa Var and Girls Nite Out make this an event you won’t want to miss. Festival proceeds benefit the “Equip the Kitchen” campaign-Palamanui College and Kona Pacific Public Charter School. For more information and tickets for farm tours, seminars, demonstrations as well as the gala chocolate tasting go to bigislandchocolatefestival.com.

You should top the weekend off with the Hawaii Chapter of the American Bamboo Society meeting and tours. The meeting will be held May 4 at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary. The event begins with a potluck at noon and finishes with tours of the sanctuary and a new bamboo home on the scenic highway to Holualoa. Potential new members and folks interested in bamboo are invited. For more information contact Jacqui Marlin at 966-5080. The Sanctuary is located at 73-1865 Hao Street in Kailua-Kona.

Back to cacao or cocoa, note that cocoa and tea are now commercial crops in Hawaii, along with coffee. Cacao comes from the humid tropics of South America and does best below 1,500 feet elevation on the Big Island, where there is sufficient moisture and little wind. In cooler regions, tea is a better choice to grow.

What we think of as English tea or Chinese tea is coming into its own in Hawaii.

Plants may be found in many Big Island gardens as ornamentals. They make attractive small trees to 30 feet. Most folks believe tea is a crop grown in and confined to equatorial countries. This however is a misconception. Tea grows in a wide range of climates, from equatorial to temperate zones. It grows in Southern Russia near the Caucasus Mountains on the latitude of 40 degrees north, and in Argentina near the latitude 30 degrees south. On a recent trip to Brazil and Argentina we saw tea in production and in the market.

Tea’s botanical name is Camellia sinensis, and it is closely related to horticultural varieties which bloom magnificently in many home gardens and public parks.

The tea plant is an attractive evergreen shrub native to Assam, India. There are about a thousand varieties known which differ in flower and shade of green leaves as well as flavor when brewed.

The stimulating drink was originally used medicinally but since the fifth century has been the chief beverage in China. It became popular in Europe in the 17th century and was America’s chief beverage until the Boston Tea Party.

An alkaloid, like caffeine, and a volatile oil give tea its flavor. Long brewing extracts tannin which is bitter and not considered beneficial.

Yerba Mate is a popular stimulating drink of South America. It comes from the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis and is called the “Drink of the Gods” and the “Incas Green Gold” We also saw coca tea from the same plant that cocaine is derived. Yerba Mate is something we could grow in Hawaii but of course not the coca tea, even though it is used by locals there as just a mild stimulant.

Another drink we enjoyed every day was made from the acai or assai fruit. This is very popular in Rio de Janeiro and was sold at juice stands combined with Yerba Mate. The acai fruit comes from the palm tree Euterpe oleracea. It is an attractive clumping palm that would do well in many Hawaiian gardens. Several growers who attended the International Palm Conference in Rio de Janeiro exported seed of this palm. The plants are beginning to show up for sale at area nurseries. Last fall there was an International Palm Society meeting in Peru where we were often given coca tea. This beverage helps one breathe at high elevations.

Traveling really opens our eyes to new crops for Hawaii as well as better ways to grow and sell the crops we have. Hopefully, more folks here can experience some of the horticultural conferences in the USA and abroad. The next one that several folks from Hawaii will be attending is the American Bamboo Society Annual Meeting and Convention, October 16 to 19 in San Diego.