Rediscovering the famous pandanus
A Marshall Islands businessman is developing more products from the Pacific-native plant known as ‘divine’
By Raquel Bagnol
Pandanus plants first caught the attention of businessman Ramsey Reimers in the Marshall Islands when he was a young boy.
He grew up listening to stories from older folks about how they survived eating and preparing foods with pandanus during times of famine.
The pandanus plant, known as "bõb" in Marshallese, is a tropical tree found throughout the Pacific island region. It is a unique, traditional food of the atolls. It is also known as the "divine tree" in the Marshall Islands because it plays an essential role in everyday life.
Reimers said his company, Robert Reimers Enterprises Inc., began to get serious about developing new products from the pandanus plant, starting with “bõb juice.” It was his first product.
"In the late 80s early 90s, we started the pandanus juice production at RRE, with our custom-made juicer built in Taiwan," Reimers said. The first product, bõb juice, was sold by Pacific Pure Water Inc., a subsidiary of RRE. It was a hit in the local market.
"When we saw how our 100 percent pure pandanus juice sales were growing, we thought of other ways to develop additional products. We came up with a by-product of the pandanus juice - the 'makwon,' pandanus paste which is a baby food product," he said.
Recently, Reimers branched out into producing a distilled alcohol product from pandanus. The whiskey called "Atoll Hooch" got positive feedback from customers. They plan to expand production, including bottling, labeling and properly packaging it for promotion.
But the pandanus products still need to be distributed in large quantities. "The market is minuscule. Our pandanus whiskey is still in its infancy stage. Hopefully, it will grow to be another export product of the islands," Reimers said.
Reimers' vision of expanding and developing more products from the pandanus continues. He said other products could be produced from the tree.
"Marshallese handicrafts are woven from the pandanus leaves. Lumbers from the tree trunk and fibers from the key could be made into rope or twine," he said. “The Marshallese pound the roots for an antiseptic cure for wounds, and make pandanus fruit rolls called 'jankun' from pandanus syrup, sugar and molasses.”
More studies and research are needed to find what more we can do with the pandanus, Reimers said.
He said if farmers are aware of the pandanus's economic benefits, they would plant trees in different parts of the world.
"People were able to develop various varieties of the pandanus plant and named them after their creators. This could be referred to as the modern technology of DNA. Imagine if we can create the perfect, robust, juiciest pandanus that can bear so many fruits and has no season for harvest?"
Reimers said local farmers and residents in the Marshall Islands grow a few pandanus plants in their homes for personal consumption. "Without doubt, if they know they can make money from selling it, they will grow more trees, and still others will start pandanus plantation farms," he said.
Anyone can grow pandanus plants. Reimers said it's straightforward to plant and grow pandanus, but like any other plant, it needs to be maintained, pruned and cleaned to bear good fruit.
Reimer's family operates RRE, a small resort in Majuro. Reimer said they planted 150 pandanus trees when RRE launched years ago and added more varieties. The company relies on local pandanus suppliers for their bõb juice product. But they will need more people to grow and provide pandanus raw materials as they develop more products in the future.
Reimers encourages other farmers around the Pacific to keep planting more and more pandanus.
"Someday, it will become one of their main sources of income," he said.
There are over 600 species of pandanus growing on the coastal areas of Pacific island nations, including Polynesia, Micronesia, Malaysian Islands, and Australia. The plant can grow from 13 to 46 feet tall. Pandanus grows well on sandy soil. It is a versatile plant with extensive potential income-earning products. With the plant, everything is well-spent. Pandanus wood is used for construction purposes, while the leaves are used for weaving and thatching. The pandanus bark and flowers are used as scents for body oils, while the roots are used to make medicines, ropes, and paintbrushes. Some pandanus species are used in traditional medicines. In parts of Southeast Asia, pandanus is commonly used as food flavoring for desserts and sweets. In Thailand, people use pandanus leaves to boil with water for drinking to add refreshment, or use the leaves to wrap food for cooking. Pandanus in the Marianas The pandanus plant is native to Guam. In Chamorro, pandanus is known as aka'on, pahong and kafu. While pandanus fruit is not a staple for CHamoru, the seed kernels are used as a relish. According to Guampedia, ancient CHamoru women used palm and pandanus leaves to create various decorative and practical things like mats, blankets, sails, bags, baskets, and more. The art of weaving in Guam and Saipan, however, has dwindled over the years.