Talent like this doesn’t grow on trees

UH Student Organic Farm

Photo: UH SOFT

In the shadow of windward O‘ahu’s Ko‘olau Mountains, banana plants grow on a UH Student Organic Farm Training plot that occupies about 1.5 acres at the Waimānalo Research Station.

Gabriel Sachter-Smith

Banana enthusiast, TPSS grad (BS, 2011), and soon-to-be graduate student Gabriel Sachter-Smith stands beside a banana plant that is propped with a branch to help the plant support its large inflorescence. Above Gabe’s head, toward the base of the inflorescence are green fruit; red bracts enclose the inflorescence tip. This banana plant is one of more than 50 varieties he’s helped cultivate as a member of the UH Student Organic Farm Training program (SOFT). Photo: UH SOFT

Most kids growing up in Nederland, Colorado would tell you that bananas grow on trees. Having seen a banana plant on a visit to Maryland, Gabriel Sachter-Smith knew better. When middle-school classmates doubted that banana plants are herbs, not trees, Gabe consulted some references to check his facts. The more he read about bananas, the more he wanted to learn. He ordered a banana plant by mail. When it died, he did more research and ordered a hardier variety that lived. In time, the sunroom of his parents’ house became a summer home for more than 40 banana cultivars. A breeding project to develop a banana able to tolerate non-tropical environments garnered him honorable mention at the state science fair and a trip to the 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Gabe’s expanding interest in tropical fruit plants led him to papaya seeds bred by faculty in UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) and available online through the Agricultural Diagnostic Service Center. When the time came to choose an undergraduate degree program, he knew he could find a wealth of banana know-how in CTAHR’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences (TPSS). By participating in the Western Undergraduate Exchange program of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) he received a discounted non-resident tuition rate equal to 150 percent of the tuition paid by Hawai‘i residents.

In his four years with TPSS, Gabe hasn’t let grass grow under his feet. While completing a BS in TPSS with an emphasis in Plant Genetics and Physiology, he’s mastered tissue culture techniques to clone disease-free banana plantlets, an important aspect of integrated pest management to control banana bunchy top virus and protect Hawai‘i’s banana industry. His passion for bananas has gone global with an invitation to the 2009 International Banana Symposium in Guangzhou, China and summer fieldwork in Uganda. He’s active in the UH Horticulture Society, which grows plants, organizes visits to gardens and farms, meets with people in the horticulture industry, conducts community outreach, and funds itself through plant sales. He’s also an officer for UH Mānoa’s SOFT program [hyperlink to Organic and Sustainable Ag story] (Student Organic Farm Training) and has helped establish more than 50 banana varieties on the SOFT plot at the Waimānalo Research Station in windward O‘ahu.

Lucky for us, Gabe won’t be saying aloha when he graduates in May 2011. He’ll be pursuing a graduate degree in TPSS and working with Dr. Richard Manshardt [hyperlink to Manshardt TPSS page] to screen banana varieties for resistance to banana bunchy top virus and investigate macropropagation as an alternative approach to tissue culture in establishing plentiful, disease-free new plants for farmers. From teen aficionado to accomplished agriculturist, Gabe exemplifies the curiosity and drive that TPSS students bring to the science and art of growing tropical plants.

More than 1000 varieties of banana are grown worldwide. Not all banana fruits are sweet and soft: firmer, starchy cooking bananas are key dietary staples in many tropical locales Not all banana fruits are yellow: the skin can be green, red, purple, or pink, among other hues, and the flesh can be pigmented, too. And bananas never grow on trees. Banana plants are giant herbs; their psuedostem consists of large leaf bases and contains no wood.