Rambutan is often translated as “hairy lychee,” which is an inaccurate description of this fruit, said Moloa‘a farmer Jude Huber, as she spilled another bag of the tangled red fruit into a gray bin on the tailgate of her truck.
In Malay “rambut means hairy,” she said. “And utan turns any word into a noun.”
“A literal translation would be ‘hairy thing,’” said the 20-year Kaua‘i resident.
Rambutan is in the same botanical family as lychee. Unlike lychee, rambutan is harder to grow.
“If you want fruit from a lychee all you have to do is girdle the trunk,” said Huber.
Girdling is a method used by commercial growers to trick the tree into fruiting. A wire is wrapped around the trunk to inhibit even flow of the juices and the stress forces the tree to over-produce.
This isn’t the case with the finicky rambutan, though.
“The rambutan has to go through a drought,” said Huber.
Huber and her husband, Paul, have an orchard in Moloa‘a where the arid micro-climate is good for rambutan. “Moloa‘a Desert is what the locals call it,” she said.
Even though there is less rainfall in this particular area, the Hubers still have to feign a drought for their orchard. “We stop watering our trees mid-summer, then we wait until the leaves curl up.”
Huber said this is the truly painful part.
“It’s really hard,” she said. “It’s hard to know how much is too much, but if you don’t do it long enough you don’t get any fruit.”
“Researchers are always trying to figure out how to make more fruit,” said Huber. Yet, for all the experimentation, parching the tree remains the only known way to get fruit.
According to the Purdue University Web site on horticulture, the rambutan is native to Malaysia and commonly cultivated throughout the archipelago and southeast Asia.
It was taken to the Philippines from Indonesia in 1912. Further introductions were made in 1920 (from Indonesia) and 1930 (from Malaya), but until the 1950s its distribution was limited.
As for the true nature of a tropical fruit, “Where there’s monsoon, there’s drought,” said Huber. “Hawai‘i isn’t the tropics. It’s a temperate zone.”
Like many farmers, not only is the work dependent on climate, there’s a certain amount of intuition that goes into propagation and that’s why the Hubers have to be careful and attentive to the orchard during the imposed mid-summer drought.
Another challenge for this temperamental tree is wind intolerance. When the Hubers first planted their trees they had to be protected from the wind by black screen — the kind you see shielding construction sites.
“We tried one layer at first,” she said. When one layer didn’t come close to protecting the fragile youngsters, the Hubers wound up doubling the layer and putting a screen roof over the seedlings.
All 600 of their trees are from seed.
“We start with a seedling and then graft on the variety we want,” she said.
The yearlings that receive the graft need one more year to mature before bearing fruit.
According to rambutan.com the differences between a seed-grown tree and a grafted tree are striking.
Grafted trees make a larger fruit for one. And the texture and sugar content are often superior in grafted or selected cultivars.
With the help of just one employee, the farmers hand-pick the fruit with as little use of a ladder as possible.
“We top our trees so the fruit stays low,” said Huber. “The guy who picks with us can fill two 4-foot square bins in a day.” Two of these huge bins fill the bed of her full-size truck.
Rambutan grows in clusters.
“We let our trees get leggy so they drape,” she said.
Holding a branch in each hand — both heavy with a dozen red globes, Huber pulls the fruit apart on one tightly bound bunch.
Pointing to the yellowed coils on the fruit near the stem, she noted how the tighter clusters discolor where the fruit was pressed into its stem-mate.
Then she points out the size of the fruit on the branch in her other hand. “See how much bigger the loose clusters are.” The spaciousness of the longer stems allowed the fruit to expand.
Rambutan are almost double the size of lychee.
While the appearance of the meat is similar, there is a difference in flavor. Rambutan are milder and less acidic.
“It’s hard to describe the difference in flavor,” said Huber. “How do you describe the difference between an orange and a tangerine? Rambutan taste better.”
“And,” she added, “they are way more fun.”
To crack the wiry rind is easy. The “hair” is pliable — just open wide to bite through the equator of the fruit.
In the past the Hubers farmed sugar loaf pineapple and sunrise papaya. They began cultivating rambutan after the demise of the papaya industry.
“It was a combination of things,” she said. “The market was flooded with papaya from other countries.”
The couple wound up plowing under dozens of acres of sunrise papaya trees. “We had to pick and literally bury tons of unsellable fruit.”
But Huber doesn’t complain, so much as state this as a fact.
“That’s farming,” she said. “I’m living on Kaua‘i. How bad could it be?”
The best part of the “failed” crop was a connection she and her husband made locally. “A Hawaiian guy came and picked up our fruit to feed to his pigs.” When they were planning their wedding, he offered to roast a pig for the reception.
The papaya-fed pig was “the sweetest tasting meat I have ever had,” beamed Huber. “Hey, that’s Kaua‘i. Let go and give — only then can you get.”
If you would like to plant a rambutan tree on your property, contact Growing Greens Nursery on Kawaihau Road in Kapa‘a.
This exotic winter delicacy can be purchased by the bulging bag-full for $10 from Huber from now until February.
For details on her “drive-through window” call 635-0061.
– yummy fruitti tutti –