Banana poka ‘rounds up’ families for mountain event

KOKE‘E — Billed as an ‘ohana forest education fair, the Banana Poka Round Up held Sunday in Koke‘e state park has become the poster child for the agricultural threats to Hawai‘i’s forests.

This year’s event marked its 18th anniversary, thanks to sponsorship from Hui o Laka and Hawai‘i Tourism Authority-County of Kaua‘i.

With creative activities, the round up serves to educate the community on the banana poka, an invasive species to Hawai‘i. According to the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s botany department, banana poka is an aggressive vine of the passion fruit family that covers, smothers and breaks underlying vegetation, and it is rapidly invading mid- to upper-elevation native forests.

Each year, the round up teaches participants about the plant and how to weave baskets from it. Vines are provided for participants at the event.

“We never dreamed we could get rid of all (the banana poka) with just weaving baskets,” Marsha Erickson, Hui o Laka executive director, said.

Erickson estimates that the fair has taught roughly 2,000 people how to weave over the years. Now, some of the basket weavers are saying that they are having a more difficult time finding the vines.

“The effect is cumulative,” Erickson said. “No doubt we have liberated certain areas.”

Erickson said she brought the idea of basket-weaving workshops from the Big Island, where she learned the skill.

Linda Oshiro was a participant in a past workshop “decades and decades ago,” and she now conducts four classes every year following the annual round up. She teaches two using the banana poka vines and two using black wattle bark, all of which teach participants to uproot and release, or untangle, the vines from the trees and weave them into something functional.

Oshiro said the banana poka vines make excellent baskets, as they last a long time, can be thrown in the freezer if bugs get in them and can be spray-painted to add color.

Volunteers joined Oshiro Sunday in teaching small groups of four or five throughout the day to weave baskets.

Erickson said that the fair provided an excuse to get families and children to enjoy the mountain air — weaving banana poka baskets was just one part of it.

“Hui o Laka’s core purpose is to get people to come up to the mountain with their families and to enjoy the mountain,” Erikson said.

Erickson said no one person or group can do everything that needs to be done for children of the forest, so Hui o Laka looks to growing partnerships.

Agencies such as the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Kaua‘i Invasive species committee, Koke‘e Resource Conservation Program and the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, among others, contributed to Sunday’s fair.

“We’re not trying to make it bigger and bigger,” Erikson said. “We’re trying to deepen the educational content for families and children.” The fair provides an opportunity to tell the community how they can get involved with the park.

Hui o Laka’s year-round volunteer program, Kokua Koke‘e, is structured so that the entire family — from a non-ambulatory grandparent to a young child — can participate together.

The program is centered on the idea of hand gardening along forest areas that people use such as trails, overlooks and meadows. On the Kaluapuhi trail, for example, five to six people worked around one tree with the goal of completely clearing the area of weeds and invasive species.

Fran Oligo and her family have been attending the round ups for 10 years.

“There are always new things to learn about the forest,” Oligo said.

She and her niece, Amanda Rita, worked on walking sticks of guava. Volunteer LB Schraepfer explained that in the cool Koke‘e climate, guava is supple and easy to cut and carve. Once it leaves the mountain, it dries and gets harder.

Erickson calls the guava plant a terrible threat.

“Leaves drop and poison the soil,” she said. “Nothing else will sprout.”

As with banana poka and black wattle, which was brought in to feed cattle and turned out to be a pest, to weave baskets, Erickson wants the community to come up with ways to turn the “poison” of the guava plant to a “cure.” She pointed to its use as landscaping aids on the museum grounds and she has tested for herself its use as beanpoles. She challenges the community to come up with other uses.

“It’s community building,” Erickson said. “It’s about getting the community together to enjoy their families and to enjoy their public places.”

• Cynthia Matsuoka is a freelance writer for The Garden Island and former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She can be reached by e-mail at

Banana Poka

• Banana poka, formally called Passiflora mollissima, is an aggressive vine of the passion fruit family.

• Plant covers, smothers and breaks underlying vegetation with dense mats of stems and foliage

• Vine is rapidly invading mid- to upper-elevation native forests.

• It is considered one of the highest priority forest weed species for biocontrol.

Information sourced from University of Hawai‘i

at Manoa’s botany

department Web site,


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