Cauliflory is a botanical term that refers to plants that flower and fruit from the trunk, woody structures, and roots rather than from new growth. This seems bizarre, but there are actually quite a number of edible fruits that grow this way. Most of them are just as exotic as the concept seems to indicate, with fun sounding names like the jabuticaba, but others are more familiar – like our friend the durian.
All durians are cauliflourus, but one species is particularly famous for the phenomenon. Durio testudinarum (durian kura kura or tortoise durian) doesn’t fruit at all from the branches or canopy region, instead forming bulbous globs around the base of the tree so low to the ground that turtles are said to be among those who enjoy it. The species is even less well known than durio dulcis because although botanists consider it one of the 9 edible species, the local people disagree. Still, Rob and I had hopes of finding it, so we traveled to Lanjak – a small town on the edge of the Danau Sentarum National Forest.
|View of the lake from Lanjak Hill
Just a few years ago, Lanjak was a hopping logging town, rife with prostitutes and gambling. But since the World Wildlife Fund moved in several years ago, illegal logging has come to a screaming halt and so has Lanjak’s economy. Henry, the manager of the WWF Lanjak Office, told us that initiatives to plant rubber and durian have helped only a little. The day we visited he and his staff had just finished replanting an area with orangutan habitat – which means durians, among other fruit trees.
I don’t know what the people of Lanjak would do with more durians. We thought 50 cent durians in Putussibau were cheap, but when we got to Lanjak the price dropped to less than 25 cents per fruit! By 7 a.m. the entire market street was transformed into a sea of durians. I have never seen so much durian in one place at one time, and that is really saying something. Baskets and baskets brought in from the villages blocked the street, forcing pedestrians to weave carefully through the overflowing piles of thorns. It was insanity!
|Lanjak morning durian market
We didn’t see any species other than the normal durio zibethinus at the market, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t quite a variety of species in the jungle, unharvested and uneaten. Later that day, Henry introduced us to Markus, a local hunter who knew the whereabouts of a single kura kura durian tree. We went on a short hike up a hill, and there it was! After such a long search, it was shocking to find it so easily.
The fruits we found were tiny, scattered around the roots of the tree. They wouldn’t be mature for another 6 weeks. According to my sources, kura kura durians grow nearly as large as zibethinus and have very similar exteriors, however the odor is said to be appalling. Most people don’t care for the flavor, but a few seem to disagree. When we met with Mr. Jumat Haji Alim, he told us that while he himself doesn’t like it, he knew of a man who claimed the kura kura was his favorite. I like to believe that all durians are likeable, with the right attitude. After all, their purpose it to attract large mammals, like us.
Cauliflory has fascinated generations of botanists, and there are a lot of theories about why trees would evolve this way. Since the majority of examples of cauliflory occur in the tropics, it’s theorized that in the windless tropical rainforest, trees like the durian depend on the movement of many animals, birds, and insects for both pollination and seed dispersal. Growing fruit on the trunk and large, sturdy branches makes the flowers and fruit more accessible to creatures that might have difficulty reaching the weak tips of young branches. Other theories are more complex. E.J.H. Corner, who penned his theory on the evolution of the angiosperm in The Durian Theory Or The Origin of the Modern Tree, thought that cauliflory is a throwback to a more ancient stage in the evolution of plants.
Why durio testudinarum would grow so differently from the other durians is an interesting question, but I think the more interesting question is: does it taste good? Maybe we’ll get the chance to find out.
More Interesting Durian Species:
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