Fairy tales are full of inter-species hybrids. Centaurs, sphinxes, mermaids, griffins – how many Harry Potter plots depend on these unlikely anatomical mix and matches?
Real-life hybrids sound like just as much fantastical fun. Their names are slangy portmanteaus that give just enough of description to push our imaginations into action. Zebroid. Liger. Aprium. Pluot. Tangelo. Rabbage.
It’s unforgivable that no one has come up with a good name for interspecies hybrids of durian. I mean, D. graveolens x D. zibethinus x D. kutjensis? Come on.
Last month Rob and I visited Eko Mulyanto (left) and Lufti in Banyuwangi, Java.
Eko owns and operates Agro Banyuwangi, a commercial nursery that he has turned into his own private playground for plant experimentation. There he and Lufti experiment with crossing and back-crossing three species of durian: D. zibethinus, D. graveolens, and D. kutejensis.
If you haven’t completely converted to durian nerdism, there are 27 distinct species of durian. These aren’t the Musang Kings or D24 durians you’ll find at a stall in Kuala Lumpur. These are species,the way tigers and lions or plums and apricots are related but not.
And like tigers and lions, or plums and apricots, sometimes they breed and make something that needs a new name.
Eko has recorded as many as 65 interspecies variations in Banyuwangi. They come in shades of red and candy pink, sunset orange and musty yellow. Some are striped, or marbled, or blushed with shades sliding into each other like an edible sunrise. It’s an infinity of variation, and if you actually start building a mental mosaic of all the possible durians you might find yourself wondering strange esoteric thoughts like what flips genes on or off, whether true randomness exists, and if God had a say in naming rights, which language (s)he’d pick.
Or you might simply think Mmmmm, that looks tasty. Either way.
Eko has categorized them into four types, based on what the durian looks like when you mix and match certain species, and given them very practical names: 1) Solid Color 2) Striped 3) Rainbow 4) Brown.
Melanie and Tobias made a great video about eating Red Durians in Banyuwangi, so if you don’t care about the science of durian hybrids, just click over there and check it out! Hardcore durian lovers read on…
Solid: D. graveolens x D. zibethinus
I remember the first time I ate this hybrid very clearly, because it sort of shredded my understanding of biology and the whole system of classifications that we were forced to learn in school – you know, the whole Kingdom, Genus, Species thing? That.
These two durians actually cross with each other all the time, a delicious mating that I recommend you try. The D. graveolens lends all of its super-sticky, cream cheese-like qualities to a durian as fleshy and sweet as a D. zibethinus, with an extra layer of bitterness and a brilliant color.
I ate it, I was happy, but I wasn’t asking big questions yet. I’d heard of interspecies hybridization before. Mules. Zonkeys. Pluots. The squmpkin that grew in my yard once when I planted yellow squash too close to pumpkins. I thought they were cool, but kind of freakish. One of nature’s genetic screw-ups like sixth toes or Down syndrome.
Then I looked more closely at the seed I’d been sucking on. It was cracked, the beginning of a new shoot just visible. The hybrid seed was growing. And then I started thinking.
2. Striped: D. graveolens x D. Zibethinus x D. zibethinus
When I saw that seed growing, I realized that my operating definition of species was totally wrong. I’d been taught that when two species bred, their baby would be infertile. It was like a natural check, keeping things distinct and tidy enough that someone could ostensibly keep track of first cousins.
If a hybrid durian seed can sprout, and grow, and have sex with other durians, and make a fruit, that changes things. There are way more possibilities, and they don’t fit into the tidy boxes in a taxonomy family tree.
Take this striped durian as an example. It’s the fruit equivilent of a Li-Liger, a Liger crossed back with a Lion, and is 3/4 normal durian, and 1/4 red durian. The one I tasted was overripe, sweet and mushy exactly like a normal kampung or putih durian. Except with candy cane stripes.
Whenever this durian makes a baby its chromosomes will integrate seamlessly into either D. graveolens and D. zibethinus gene pool. This is not how it’s supposed to work. And yet it does.
3. Rainbow Durian: D. graveolens x D. zibethinus x D. kutejensis
So what would Linneaus do with this durian?
The Rainbow durian isn’t just two durian species mixed together, it’s three. A triple cross of that first hybrid bred with the sweet and pineapple-flavored D. kutejensis that I’m not certain would have happened without a little human help. Sometimes, we humans make beautiful things.
The best way to describe this durian is dense. It has a slightly waxier skin to it that had a little bit of a chew to it but underneath the flesh was thick, creamy poundcake. It’s color entranced me, the soft blend of red into the orange and yellow. It was gorgeous. Yet I wondered, if a botanist wandering in the jungles found it, would they recognize it as a hybrid? Or would they classify it as something new, under a different name, and does that really matter?
It’s like the line separating species has been drawn and redrawn until finally there are so many eraser smudges it’s just a blur, and that’s actually the most correct interpretation of things.
4. Brown Durian: D. graveolens x D. zibethinus x D. kutejenis x D. kutejensis.
I was only able to taste one seed of this durian, a petite thing with an ugly, muddy orange color. The seed was thick, but thin, and I popped the whole seed in my mouth to suck on it. It reminded me for some reason of how as a kid I’d push every button on the soda machine because then I didn’t have to decide which soda I wanted. I could have them all.
We had names for drinks like that. We called them Suicides, or Twisters, or Graveyards. Only fruity sodas went in Twisters – Sprite and Hawaiian Punch and Pink Lemonade. Suicides had Coca-cola. I don’t remember what distinguished a Graveyard, but there were rules about these things, and heated arguments happened over what to call Big Red and Pepsi mixed together.
Maybe it’s human nature to try to create order in the world around us. To give classifications names and make rules about what belongs and what doesn’t even when there are so many arbitrary exceptions the whole system stops making sense. Like my childhood soda taxonomy, or like Linnean taxonomy in the face of DNA testing.
I think that’s why, when it comes to hybrids, portmanteaus are so useful. They’re easier to say than listing out the components, and the resulting names are awkward and funny and descriptive. There’s something “sticky” about names that have been spliced together, whether they’re good or bad: wholphins and limequats and broccoflowers and kalards (kale-collards).
Interspecies durian hybrids will only become more common with time. They’re too cool, and too tasty to ignore. It may be that we’ll soon be eating Musang King crossed with a D. graveolens to make it even drier and more bitter, or a Monthong crossed with D. kutejensis to make it even fruitier and more orange. Eko pointed out that just utilizing the colors of D. kutjensis and D. graveolens would boost the nutrient value, adding beta carotene and anthocyanins.
When this happens, we’ve got to be ready with some silly mish-mash of names to describe categories of durian hybrids. Otherwise, how will we ever keep track?
My vote goes to Zibeolens for the first one (zibethinus-graveolens). I can’t wait to hear your suggestions! I”ll share my favorites on Facebook.