Harvesting Rambutans

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Sweet and fragrant, these hairy oddities were introduced to Australia’s sugar growers in the early 1980’s as an alternative to the dwindling cane fields. Two class 5 cyclones in 2006 and 2011 nearly killed the budding industry, but rambutans are making a comeback and are now a common sight in Australian grocery stores.
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Around the 13th to 15th centuries, Arab traders played a major role in Indian Ocean trade and introduced rambutan to East Africa. In the 19th century, the Dutch introduced it to South America and the plant spread to tropical Americas. In 1912, rambutan was brought to the Philippines from Indonesia. The species proved to be successful in North America.
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Rambutan’s fragrant flowers are attractive to honey bees, flies and ants. Several types of bees forage on rambutan flowers and are able to produce large quantities of honey. Bees foraging for nectar routinely contact the stigma of male flowers and gather significant quantities of the sticky pollen from male blossoms.

Droplets of early morning dew slid down my wrists as I reached for one more rambutan. I dropped the red, plum-sized fruit into a large canvas bag slung over my front, now sagging with so much weight that I waddled as I moved from tree to tree. Tomorrow, these rambutans would be boxed and wedged into a refrigerated banana truck driving over 1,400 miles to Sydney.

Rambutans are native to Southeast Asia, but today in Australia they’re an industry worth $6 million AUD. They appear in mainstream grocery stores like Woolworths and Giant, four hairy red balls to a Styrofoam container. About 75% of the Australian crop grows in tropical northern Queensland, where the average daily temperature of 85 F was not preventing me from feeling chilled in the morning dew.

I selected a fat, swollen rambutan from my bag, so ripe the seam running its circumference bulged and its tentacled “hairs” were red to the tips. It’s these curly hairs that give rambutans their name in almost all languages. Rambut means “hair” in the Malayan language, as does ngoh in Thai, and chôm chôm in Vietnamese. Depending on the variety, they can be red, orange, or even bright yellow, and some can be nearly, but not completely, bald.

I could have split the leathery skin with my thumbnail, but instead I placed the whole fruit between my teeth and cracked, spraying sticky juice down my chin. Then I sucked the smooth off-white globe into one cheek and, like a lopsided chipmunk, gently separated the firm, almost vanilla and cinnamon-tinted flesh from the woody pit with my teeth.

In a minute I heard a whine of wheels as Alan Zappala arrived in a small motorized cherry picker to clean out the fruits in the upper story. Rambutan trees can reach 50-80 feet in the wild, and even when topped they grow 15-20 feet high. These trees were over 30 years old, and while they produce well, their height presented an added difficulty.

Every year as the fruit matures, Alan drapes the whole orchard in a curtain of white netting. From the outside, the orchard looks like a Halloween ghost wearing too large of a sheet. The purpose is to keep out Spectacled Flying Foxes, intelligent fruit bats with a wingspan up to 5.2 feet, and a keen sense of smell.

The ripening rambutans drew the fruit bats in hordes. At night we heard them dive-bombing the netting, screeching and fighting in a row of unprotected trees near the house where they dropped so many shells and immature fruits it was an audible rain. In the early morning, there were still a few sleeping in the upper branches of the trees, the foliage bare of rambutans, but bliss all over their sweet, puppy-dog faces. Thanks to fruit bats, 90% of Queensland’s orchards are netted.

As the dew turned steamy in the rising tropical sun, we brought the full crates into the shade of the shed to give the hairy fruits a wash and blow dry before packing them for their long voyage to Sydney.

Lindsay Gasik is a traveling fruit enthusiast who spends most of her time in Southeast Asia eating durian and helping others explore exotic places through interesting tropical fruits. Tweet her at @durianwriter or check out her blog, Year of the Durian

Mother Earth Gardener
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