The year was 1881. Kalakaua was king and Hawaii was still a peaceful monarchy. A man named William Purvis arrived from Australia on a steamship that year bringing with him the first macadamia tree to Hawaii. At that time, Purvis was a 23-year-old avid plant collector and sugar plantation manager on the island of Hawaii. He planted the tree in the sleepy plantation town of Kapulena on the island’s Hamakua Coast. Many years ago when I was farming macadamia orchards at Kapulena, I went with a local resident who knew where the tree was planted to see it for myself. I believe that it is still there today.
The macadamia was first classified and described in 1858 by Baron Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller, director of Australia’s Melbourne Botanical Gardens, and Walter Hill, superintendent of Brisbane’s Botanical Gardens. The nut was named in honor of Mueller’s good friend, John Macadam, a prominent scientist, philosopher, and politician.
The macadamia tree, a subtropical evergreen of the Proteaceae (Hardner et al., 2009; Nagao, 2008), has two species that produce edible nuts: Macadamia integrifolia and Macadamia tetraphylla. Both have dark green holly-like leaves and can reach a height of 40 ft or more.
Macadamia integrifolia, known as smooth-shell macadamia, has proved suitable for commercial production. Macadamia tetraphylla, the rough-shell macadamia, has proved unsuitable and produces nuts of inconsistent quality.
The first commercial planting of macadamia is credited to Ernest Shelton van Tassel. He planted the first macadamia plantation on 75 acres of land on Tantalus, Oahu, and founded the Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Company. Oahu Island was not to be the future home of Hawaii’s macadamia industry, rather Hawaii Island with its vast land mass suitable for an orchard crop such as macadamia would ultimately become the center of production. van Tassel chose Keauhou, Kona, on the leeward side of the island to expand his business. In 1924 he leased ≈100 acres (40 ha) in Keauhou and planted 7000 trees. To market his product, he established a commercial processing facility in Honolulu and sold his macadamia nuts, in glass jars, to selected shops on the U.S. mainland. During the same timeframe, Walter Naquin began planting macadamia trees on the other side of the island near Honokaa. By 1950, his employer, Honokaa Sugar Company, was the largest producer of macadamia nuts in the territory of Hawaii with ≈450 acres (182 ha) of trees planted.
Hamilton, R.A. & Fukunaga, E.T. 1959 Growing macadamia nuts in Hawaii. Hawaii Agr. Expt. Sta. Bul. 121
Hardner, C.M., Peace, C., Lowe, A.J., Neal, J., Pisanu, P., Powell, M., Schmidt, A., Spain, C. & Willliams, K. 2009 Genetic resources and domestication of macadamia Hort. Rev. 35 1 125
Moltzau, R.H. & Ripperton, J.C. 1939 Processing of the macadamia. Hawaii. Agr. Expt. Sta. Bul 83
Nagao, M.A. 2008 Macadamia integrifolia macadamia nut, p. 600–610. In: Janick, J. and R.E. Paull (eds.). Encyclopedia of fruit and nuts. CABI, Wallingford, UK
Shigeura, G.T. & Ooka, H. 1984 Macadamia nuts in Hawaii: History and production. Hawaii Inst. Trop. Agr. Ext. Ser. 39