50 Shades of Yellow: This Man Runs a Banana Library on a Farm in Waialua
Gabe Sachter-Smith stalks bananas around the world and builds a banana library of Hawaiian cultivars.
Photo: Martha Cheng
“Most people think of ‘the best banana’ as the one which tastes the best when the fruit is eaten ripe and raw,” says banana explorer, breeder and farmer Gabe Sachter-Smith. “But when I think of ‘the best,’ my thought is ‘for what purpose?’ Fruit for fresh eating? Fruit for smoothies? Frying? Fermenting? Fiber for making rope? Animal feed? Cut flowers? Medicine? Landscape foliage?” This particular banana is named Praying Hands—two “hands” of bananas fused, as if they were glued together. It’s a mutation of a Filipino cooking banana and in a half-ripe stage can be steamed and boiled, or eaten raw when ripe.
Gabe Sachter-Smith at Counter Culture’s farm in Waialua.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino
Bananas don’t grow on trees. The plant is actually a giant herb. Gabe Sachter-Smith says he learned that fact at 14, when he was still a “normal middle-schooler” growing up in Colorado. “Trying to understand what that meant led me on a never-ending quest to learn more about bananas,” he says. “I was never particularly interested in eating the fruit—it was really the concept of what exactly was a ‘banana plant’?”
Sixteen years later, on a farm in Waialua, he maintains a banana library of Asian, African, Pacific and Hawaiian cultivars. The latter includes the finicky mai‘a manini, the banana peel and leaves a variegated light cream and green, as if painted with watercolors, and the iholena, its fruit tinged coral pink. His banana quest has also sent him around the world: to the Solomon Islands, where he learned of a slender banana with a fluffy texture, nicknamed the “Five Minute” banana for how quickly it cooks. There, he ventured to Makira, “the heart of the banana world,” where a woman had collected 80 different cultivars. In Uganda, which has the highest per capita consumption of bananas in the world, he kept a lookout for giant pythons hiding in collapsed termite mounds while documenting wild native and domesticated plants. Along the way, he also sipped banana beer, banana wine and banana juice. When we first speak, he is heading to Laos and China as the expert identifier on a banana expedition: “Sometimes when you are exploring the unknown, you really just don’t know what it is you are looking at,” he says.
This stalking of bananas is not just for curiosity’s sake. Sachter-Smith breeds new varieties hoping to establish plants that can stand up to diseases like banana bunchy-top virus, which
has devastated Hawai‘i’s banana production since it was introduced 30 years ago.
Sachter-Smith’s passion is simple and profound. “I just enjoy pursuing things that interest me,” he says. “Most people think of ‘the best banana’ as the one that tastes best to a human when the fruit is ripe and raw. I like to think each different type of banana has its own unique highest purpose, and it’s my calling to figure out what that is for each one, to know its story.”
He estimates that there are about 3,000 banana varieties in the world, “depending on how you measure it—which is more philosophical than scientific,” he says. “But I’ve accepted the true answer is unknowable, so that also means I will never stop learning about them because I want to try to know about them all.”