KOKEE — An island tradition may not be around for future generations, if things keep going at the rate they’re going.
The plum picking season looks bleak, experts say.
Weather, over-harvesting and human-caused damage to trees are some of the reasons the fruit hasn’t produced yields like it did during its robust days of the ‘50s, leaving some to wonder if the harvesting sport will be around in the future.
“Kokee has not seen a good plum crop for more than five years,” said David Tsuchiya, DLNR Parks maintenance supervisor for West Kauai, who described this year’s crop as poor, just like in previous years.
The season opened on Independence Day.
Plum picking in Kokee is both a cultural and social activity that has been around for decades.
But the trees aren’t native to Hawaii. Cattle ranching in the late 1800s damaged the land to the extent that restoration efforts were necessary, and to prevent further erosion, Methley plum trees from South Africa were planted in 1930, according to The Hawaiian Journal of History. Those lands were later designated as Kokee State Park.
And the trees thrived in their new environment, with approximately 9,000 pickers harvesting 70 tons of fruit back in 1952.
The almost-ripe fruit are mostly cherry-sized, with some nearly the size of a small apricot.
In recent years, however, the abundance of plum crops seem to be on the decline.
Roy Yamakawa, Kauai County administrator for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said temperature may be the culprit responsible for the stunted size.
“Plums are stone crops, because of the pit; they require chilling,” he said. “The more chilling time, the bigger they get. Small plum size is the result of not enough chill time.”
Yamakawa, who grew up on Kauai and remembers picking plums as a child, said he has noticed a temperature change in Kokee.
“Growing up, it was way colder,” he said. “It was not unusual to have frost on your windshield, which means that it was below 32 degrees. Over the decades, I’ve noticed that the winters are unusually warmer.”
Other factors — such as heavy rains and winds that knock buds off or cause fungal infections that cause flowers to abort, or damage from invasive insects — also contribute to a poor crop.
University of Hawaii Apiary Program instructor James “Jimmy” Trujillo speculates that the use of pesticides could be harming feral bee populations. He said that while plum trees are not dependent on pollination by bees, pollination does increase the quality and value of the fruit.
Another hindrance for plum crops is the mentality of some who pick, who leave little or none behind for others and show little respect for the aina.
In the course of his duties at the state park, Tsuchiya has found evidence of a careless mindset of pickers.
“Every year, we find trees that are split due to climbing. This damages the tree for future seasons,” he said.
He added another manmade problem stems from early pickers who harvest illegally before the season starts, essentially stealing green plums to make ume.
DLNR is encouraging pickers to use a short pole with a net to reach the high fruit, rather than climbing and damaging the tree.
Kokee resident Janet Canalichio said last year pickers came into her yard, raiding all of the plum trees and didn’t leave a single fruit behind. She said that plants thrive when they are in their natural environment, just as God created them to be.
“Dead leaves turn into mulch, which nourishes the tree,” she said. “If people only knew what a great natural resource Kokee is.”
However, this gift of nature can only continue to be enjoyed if pickers take care to practice a lifestyle of malama aina — caring for the land, taking only what you need and leaving the green fruit and young plants so the growth cycle will continue, she said.
Harvesting is permitted between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. in designated areas, with other conditions specified on the permit. DLNR places a limit of five pounds per person per day for personal consumption. Permits can be obtained from the Parks Department at the State Building in Lihue, or at Kokee Park headquarters.