From Seed Collector to Importer

Written by fruit   // 21/12/2005   // 0 Comments

The Borneo Collection of exotic tropical fruit trees thrives on a rainforest property some two hours’ drive south of Cairns. WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALLAN SMALL

David Chandlee’s property, aptly named Treefarm, is at the end of a bush track that winds steadily upwards through hilly country, over a small creek and past ongoing battles by local rainforest vegetation to reclaim patches of farmland. It is in the shadow of the wild mountain ranges west of exotically-named El Arish, a small village at the turn-off to popular Mission Beach.

But David is quite at home in this remote area, and from a comfortable chair on the verandah of the home he built by hand, he is keen to explain his passion for jungle exploration and, more importantly, the remarkable collection of seeds he exports throughout the world.
This is a far cry from Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and the subsequent university studies into Asian history and culture. Conflicting views on US politics, specifically its involvement in the Vietnam war, led David to travel to places he’d researched in books, National Geographic magazines and an atlas. The tropics were irresistible for him.

He heard about the Rare Fruit Council in Florida, joined in 1977 and was inspired by a magazine article by a Dr Tee, who noted that some 50 to 100 fruits in Borneo were virtually unknown outside that country.
David Chandlee packed his bag and headed for Borneo with a friend. He was there for seven months – exploring jungle villages, researching, learning from villagers’ experiences with the almost overwhelming array of exotic fruit trees … some fruits were poisonous, some required treatment before sampling, others were quite safe and delicious …

“Then the Wet season began – it comes with a rush – and all the fruits began appearing at once,” David said. “In Far North Queensland the fruiting is more spread-out, and it seems trees fruit later here, south of Cairns, than they do in the more northern areas.”

Seeds collected in Borneo had to be positively identified before export to colleagues in Australia, and David’s university Latin classes were suddenly essential in providing the correct botanical names for quarantine regulations. “Our partners back in Australia grew the seeds as we sent them, so by the time we returned there were thousands of seedlings ready for sale,” he said.

David has called Australia home since 1969, but his American accent lingers. He moved from a rough bush shack into his current home the same year he joined the fledgling Australian branch of the Rare Fruit Council. One of its original members, he was there when Alan Carle – now also an internationally-respected plant expert – called the first meeting and about 50 enthusiasts turned up. “I knew very little about exotic trees, and learnt a lot from weekly ABC radio talks by the head gardener at the Flecker Botanical Gardens, Cairns,” David recalled. “One discussion was about tropical fruits, and I found that particularly interesting.”

Disaster struck in February 1986 as Cyclone Winifred roared in from the Coral Sea. A tree crashed over David’s shadecloth nursery, causing some damage but preventing stock being blown away or further damaged. But Winifred swept inland, sucking cloud cover with it and the blistering hot days that followed baked and killed most of the Borneo seedlings that had been sold. “South American trees need less water and shade than those from Borneo,” David said.

An orchard walk at Treefarm is a real eye-opener. Many of the rare and unusual trees on the 62 hectare property – only four and a half are cultivated – are 25 years old. Mature durien, jakfruit, chempedak, langsat – and more – grow well here. 

David’s langsat fruit attracted plenty of support at Rusty’s Markets in Cairns, but management changes there caused him to look elsewhere and now the fruit goes to Sydney where demand – particularly among the Asian community – is even greater and prices are significantly higher. It’s now the most profitable fruit he produces, but David regrets not being able to supply his local supporters. Langsat fruit grows from the tree’s branches in bunches of about 20 fruits, each around 30mm diameter and has a sweet/acidic taste; to sample, pop the skin inside out to avoid the latex and don’t chew the bitter green seed. Birds tend to leave it alone, perhaps finding the latex unpleasant on their beaks.

Closely related is the duku, which has less latex in the skin. It’s a more upright tree with broader leaves and sweeter fruit. “Right alongside there’s a duku langsat also growing well – all are members of the same family,” David said. “Seeds grow easily in a tropical climate and are true to the parent tree.”

The lai durien is a comparatively small tree – much smaller than the more familiar durien – and could be a useful addition to a backyard. 
Another favourite is the chempedak, with fruit similar to a jakfruit – cylindrical 30-50cm long and 12-15cm in diameter. “You can eat the flesh and seeds – there’s excellent protein, carbohydrate and vitamins in each fruit, and no annoying skin like the jakfruit’s,” he said.

More information 
Check out David’s website The Borneo Collection Orders for seeds need to be made well in advance of requirements. You can order seeds by letter, telephone or email. 
David Chandlee, Treefarm, El Arish, North Queensland 4855. Phone 07 4068 5263.

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