Save money on your next flight

Skyscanner is the world’s leading flight search engine, helping you find the cheapest flights to destinations all over the world.

Hawaii’s lush tropical climate allows a diverse array of delicious fruits to grow across the islands. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to what fruits are native to Hawaii: ulu (breadfruit), mai’a (banana), and �ohelo (native berries).

This article will provide an in-depth look at the various fruits considered to be endemic species in Hawaii. We’ll explore their unique characteristics, traditional Hawaiian uses, current cultivation, and availability for visitors to sample the exotic flavours of the islands.

Defining ‘Native’ Hawaiian Fruits

Endemic vs Introduced Species in Hawaii

When discussing fruits native to Hawaii, it’s important to distinguish between endemic and introduced species. Endemic refers to plants and animals that occur naturally in Hawaii and nowhere else in the world.

Introduced species are those that have been brought to the islands by humans, whether intentionally or accidentally.

According to the University of Hawaii, there are over 10,000 endemic species in the Hawaiian islands. This includes around 1,000 plant species that occur only in Hawaii. Well-known endemic Hawaiian fruits include the mountain apple (Syzygium malaccense), ohelo berry (Vaccinium reticulatum), and ulu or breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis).

On the other hand, many fruits commonly associated with Hawaii were actually introduced after Europeans made contact with the islands. Some examples are pineapples, mangoes, bananas, papayas, guavas, and starfruit. These fruits thrive in the tropical climate but originated elsewhere in the world.

Still, they have become deeply ingrained in Hawaiian agriculture and cuisine over time.

Fruits Called “Native” Despite Origins

Some confusion exists around fruits labeled “native” when they are technically not endemic. Coconuts often fall into this category. While coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) have grown in Hawaii for centuries, the first ones were likely introduced by early Polynesian settlers.

So coconut palms did not develop exclusively in Hawaii. Still, they naturalized so long ago that locals often describe coconuts as native Hawaiian species.

Another example is the mountain apple. Technically this fruit qualifies as endemic since it only grows naturally in Hawaii. However, recent research suggests that Polynesian voyagers introduced mountain apples hundreds of years ago.

They may have come from ancestors of the species found today in Marquesas or Tahiti. Still, the mountain apple has diverged enough over centuries in Hawaii that most botanists consider it a unique endemic fruit.

Endemic Hawaiian Fruits Introduced Hawaiian Fruits
Mountain apple Pineapple
Ohelo berry Mango
Ulu/Breadfruit Papaya

As these examples illustrate, determining whether a fruit is truly “native Hawaiian” can get tricky. It often depends on exactly when the species first arrived and how much it has adapted to Hawaii’s unique island ecosystems over time.

But both endemic and well-established introduced fruits are important parts of Hawaii’s agricultural and cultural heritage.

Ulu (Breadfruit)

Physical Characteristics and Flavors

The ulu, or breadfruit, is a round green fruit that grows on evergreen trees native to Hawaii. When ripe, breadfruits have a starchy, potato-like texture and weigh 2 to 10 pounds each. Their flavor is subtly sweet and reminiscent of fresh baked bread.

Over 100 varieties of breadfruit exist in Hawaii, each with slightly different physical qualities and tastes. Popular table varieties like Ma‘afala and Ulu Fiti have creamy, dry flesh perfect for baking, frying, and steaming.

Other Hawaiian breadfruits boast unique characteristics, such as the spineless Pu‘upu‘u variety or fragrant-fleshed Pālama.

Traditional Uses in Hawaiian Culture

Breadfruits have been a dietary staple and valuable resource for native Hawaiians for centuries. Early Hawaiians cultivated over 60 varieties that provided abundant, carbohydrate-rich food. They prepared breadfruit as baked goods, boiled it as a substitute for poi taro, and even fermented the fruit to make an alcoholic beverage called pulque.

Beyond food, Hawaiians utilized all parts of the breadfruit tree for practical purposes. Its wood made excellent timber for constructing houses, tools and canoes. The tree’s bark provided cloth and cordage, while medicinal remedies derived from its leaves and roots.

Breadfruit continues to hold cultural importance in modern Hawaii. Traditional Hawaiian preparation methods remain popular today, like boiling ulu palaoa in coconut milk or wrapping ulu in ti leaves to steam.

Annual breadfruit festivals celebrate the fruit’s heritage with traditional Hawaiian games, crafts, food and educational workshops about breadfruit cultivation.

Current Breadfruit Production in Hawaii

In Hawaii’s tropical environment, breadfruit trees produce abundantly with minimal effort. However, most breadfruit today comes from non-commercial growth rather than large-scale agriculture. According to the University of Hawaii, an estimated 50,000 breadfruit trees grow across the islands, though precise data is unavailable since most are unmanaged backyard trees.

A few small breadfruit orchards operate commercially on local farms like Ulu A Luau Farm and Waipahu Ulu.

Total breadfruit trees in Hawaii ~50,000 trees (estimated)
Largest breadfruit orchards Ulu A Luau Farm (40 acres), Waipahu Ulu (5 acres)
Breadfruit yield per tree 150-600 fruits annually

Expanding commercial breadfruit production could benefit Hawaii’s economy through fruit sales and processed breadfruit products. It also supports local food security. Several hurdles must be overcome first, however, including lack of orchard management knowledge and inconsistent fruit harvesting.

Ongoing University of Hawaii research focuses on increasing production through optimized cultivation methods and more productive, disease-resistant breadfruit varieties.

Mai’a (Banana)

The islands of Hawaii host an abundance of banana varieties that have been cultivated by locals for centuries. From compact dwarf cultivars to tall, stately plants laden with bountiful bunches, Hawaiian bananas come in all shapes and sizes.

They have played an integral role in traditional Hawaiian lifestyle and still remain an important crop across the islands today.

Many Varieties of Edible Bananas

There are over 300 varieties of edible bananas growing in Hawaii. The Hawaiian name for banana is mai’a, and there are many different types with unique names that describe their size, shape, color or taste. Some common ones include:

  • Mai’a Maoli – The original Hawaiian banana cultivar
  • Mai’a Popoulu – Round, plump bananas wrapped in reddish skin
  • Mai’a Nani – A dwarf “pretty banana” with sweet fruit
  • Mai’a Iholena – A robust strain that produces large bunches

New banana hybrids continue to emerge from breeding programs at the University of Hawaii and small farms across the islands. There are miniature varieties perfect for containers, huge plantains for cooking, dessert bananas that taste like apples, and more.

Role of Bananas in Traditional Hawaiian Lifestyle

Bananas have been present in Hawaii since the earliest Polynesian settlers arrived over 1,500 years ago. Archaeological evidence shows they brought banana shoots and seeds in their voyaging canoes from the Marquesas Islands.

In ancient Hawaii, virtually all parts of the banana plant were utilized:

  • Fruit – A staple food crop that provided essential nutrients
  • Leaves – Used to wrap food for baking and make hula skirts
  • Trunk – Fibrous material used for rope, netting, clothing
  • Shoots – Cooked as vegetables

Bananas were once restricted to royalty and offered to temple gods. Today, they remain important in Hawaiian culture. The crescent-shaped root system represents human embryos and new beginnings. Banana plants are commonly gifted at baby showers called hoʻomaikaʻi.

Where to Find Banana Plants Across the Islands

From backyard gardens to expansive agricultural fields, banana plants thrive across all Hawaiian islands. The rich volcanic soil and ample rainfall create prime growing conditions.

When visiting Hawaii, you’ll frequently spot banana groves along the roadside or fringing lush valleys. Many botanical gardens like NTBG showcase diverse banana collections. You can also find ornamental and fruiting varieties at local nurseries such as:

Oahu Koolau Farmers, Waimanalo
Maui Nakita’s Farm, Wailuku
Kauai Garden Island Resource Conservation & Development

So next time you peel open a sweet Hawaiian banana, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for this iconic tropical fruit!

�Ōhelo (Native Hawaiian Berries)

Ōhelo Varieties and Distinctive Traits

There are over 20 varieties of the Ōhelo berry (Vaccinium reticulatum) that grow exclusively in the Hawaiian islands. These small, tasty fruits come in oval shapes and can range in color from yellow and orange to bright red when fully ripe.

The hardy bushes thrive on the high slopes of volcanoes and barren lava fields of Hawaii, making them exceptionally well adapted to the unique island terrain.

Ōhelo are members of the Ericaceae family along with blueberries, cranberries, and huckleberries. However, the Hawaiian berries have a distinctive tart and sweet flavor not found in other varieties. They also produce fruits periodically throughout the year instead of a single growing season.

Significance in Hawaiian Folklore and Customs

Ōhelo berries hold deep cultural and spiritual meaning in Native Hawaiian traditions. According to folklore, the volcano goddess Pele and her sister Hiʻiaka have a strong connection to the vibrant red Ōhelo fruits.

Ancient Hawaiians also used Ōhelo wood for practical purposes like making weapons and tools. The berries themselves were incorporated into celebratory feasts and offered during rituals to honor gods and goddesses. Even today, picking and eating wild Ōhelo is still considered a sacred act.

Fun fact It’s customary to never harvest the first ripe berries you see. Instead, Hawaiians leave an offering to give thanks for the bounty!

Foraging for Wild Ōhelo Berry Bushes

Unlike commercial berries, no one actively farms Ōhelo – the plants still grow wild across remote mountain forests and slopes. Foraging for them takes patience and care not to damage the sensitive ecosystem.

Prime areas to search are higher elevations along hiking trails such as Akaka Falls State Park and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Look for the distinctive leathery green leaves in shaded regions.

If you’re lucky enough to stumble across the oval red jewels, remember to harvest respectfully and sparingly. As a rule of thumb, only pick up to half of any berries you find to allow new ones to propagate.


While many fruits often considered native to Hawaii actually originated elsewhere before introduction, a few endemic species indeed developed locally over centuries of isolation. Ulu, mai’a, and �ōhelo bear great cultural significance for native Hawaiians, interwoven with traditions, legends, and daily life.

Visitors can seek out these exotic Polynesian fruits during their stay to taste Hawaii’s indigenous bounty through markets, farms, guided foraging tours, and simply exploring the lush landscapes of the islands.

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts