Pioneers in Borneo

Written by fruit   // 28/11/2005   // Comments Off

A fruit collecting and exploration in the early 1980s discovers a range of exciting new tropical fruit with promise for Australia. WORDS BY DAVID CHANDLEE AND LAUREN GANTRELL. Published in the RFCA Newsletter No. 36 January 1986

In 1984 we decided to take a working holiday to a place where we could eat plenty of rare fruits: a place which had not previously been explored by botanists with fruit uppermost in their minds. Having grown rare fruit trees for years without eating the fruit, we wanted to see if the extravagant claims others had made for them were really true. Our reading and correspondence pointed us towards the island of Borneo, the centre of the botanical zone of Malesia. Dr. Bobby Tee of Kota Kinabulu and Professor A.J.G.H. Kostermans of Bogor, Java informed us about the relatives of the durian, and we became especially interested in them.

We arrived in Sabah, Malaysia in September 1984 to discover there was almost no fruit due to the drought of 1982-83 caused by the ‘El Nino’ current in the Pacific. Extensive logging has reduced the virgin forests of Sabah by 95%, so mainly cultivated fruits are present. The ones we enjoyed the most were the Meritam, known in Peninsular Malaysia as Pulasan (and which comes in green, yellow, and red-purple), the Durian, and Langsat. We found many Mangosteens too sour for our taste, but a sweet one is delicious. Chempedak made us forget entirely about Jakfruit because it was sweeter and richer in flavour, and good cooked as well.

Later we travelled to Sarawak, where a good season revealed an astounding diversity of edible fruits. There are 2500 known species of tree in Sarawak, all producing some kind of fruit. Animals and birds eat many of these of course, often preferring the sour and astringent types, but about 150 species produce fruits with thick flesh, that are edible by humans, and of these we collected 60 species.

Travel in Sarawak is chiefly by boat – powerful express launches on the main river, and longboats – canoe-like wooden boats driven by outboards on the smaller rivers. By stages we travelled up the larger and then the smaller rives to the longhouses (1000 feet long buildings housing 40 to 100 families) where we met the Iban people, who told us about the fruits growing locally, and showed us these trees in the forest.

Most of the best fruits of Sarawak are in the families of the Durian, the Rambutan, and the Breadfruit, as well as several lesser-known families. The “wild” or “forest” Durians are excellent fruits, and may become quite popular with Australians because some are more approachable than the cultivated Durian. The Tutong is sweeter, the Isu and Graveolens have little smell. Graveolens is savoury, and Isu Ramin, Lai and Graveolens all have firmer flesh than the Durian. Lai is a faster tree to grow, and all the “wild” Durians have fewer “bad trees”– trees producing fruits with bitter or no flavour, or overly soft or fibrous – than the cultivated Durian.

In the Artocarpus or Breadfruit family, we have mentioned the Chempedak, which comes in at least four varieties: large, small, sweet, orange-fleshed and green-fleshed. The Pedalai is similar to the Tarap (or Marang) but superior, and amongst other good Artocarpus are Entawa, Pudau, Pingan and Tekalong.

In the Rambutan family there are at least 30 edible fruits, but outstanding among those we tried were the Longans – Isau and Kakus, and Lait and Sibau, two small but good fruits.

The best Bornean vine fruits, Kubal share some characteristics of the passionfruit: they are forest vines producing masses of acid or sweet-acid medium-sized fruits coloured a beautiful dull orange.

The two best savoury fruits from Sarawak, Engkala and Dabai, are sure to find a place in the Australian diet. As yet it is not known during what month they will fruit in Queensland, and in consequence whether they will compete with avocados, but if they are summer fruits which seem likely, they will be popular with those who eat avocados. Dabai resembles the olive and could probably be processed in a similar manner, although this is not necessary. Dabai is undergoing trials by the Dept of Agriculture in Kuching to examine its potential as a major commercial crop for Sarawak.

The trees our partners propagated from the seeds we sent back are growing vigorously, and this wet season will see many new plantings of these rare fruits in northern Australia.

In Borneo these fruits have been collected from the wild and cultivated for centuries, but there have been few commercial plantings to date due to the low population of that island. Recent interest in selecting good varieties is being spearheaded by the Agriculture Dept, particularly Mr A Lamb of Sabah, and Mr Voon Boon Hoe of Kuching, who are kind enough to assist and guide us in our research and fruit selection. Like us, they feel there is great commercial potential in many of these new fruits.

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