Durian breeder Dr. Songpol Somsri:
The more varieties, the more fans
It does take patience to develop a new hybrid of durian. Ten years pass before a fruit appears that can reveal what cross-pollination has achieved. Dr. Songpol Somsri has this patience. And the passion. After three decades of hybridizing, he is still excited to grab a knife and open the thorny husk. What will the flesh look like? Pale yellow, golden, orange? Is the texture creamy or crispy? How big is the seed? How strong is the smell?
The horticulturalist Songpol was born 61 years ago in a family of fruit growers. Although he lives and works in Bangkok, he can often be found at the traditional wooden house that his forefathers built in the village of Phliu. This is where his brother runs the family orchard and where he has his own test plot with a thousand durian trees. His parental home is also close to the Chanthaburi Horticultural Research Center, where he has run a durian breeding project for thirty years after finishing his PhD in Australia.
At the time of our interview, the harvest of durian is in full swing, so Dr. Songpol is in Phliu. The day before, he has brought his yield of the ‘Chanthaburi 3’ variety of durian to the packaging house of his Chinese buyer. Today he has prepared a nice display of durian at his house, including one example of the ‘Chanthaburi 1’. This variety received worldwide publicity, as it lacks the distinctive odor that many people find repulsive. His endeavor to hybridize an odorless durian met with as much reproof as praise. Opponents argued that the beloved taste would vanish with the smell. Supporters were excited to have a durian without the stench that penetrates its wide surroundings, even with the husk intact.
That was eight years ago, and Dr. Songpol still smiles about the fuss, especially since not much later this variety earned him the highest Thai research innovation award. Dr. Songpol: “The ‘Chanthaburi 1’ is only odorless for a few days after picking, which makes transport easier. After that a soft smell appears that still does justice to the taste. The Chinese are fond of it. They call it the ‘King Kanyao’. About 80% of the produce goes to China. The rest goes to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.”
His dedication to finding new hybrids of durian arose from the hardship of the farmers. “In those days, during peak season the price of durian was so low that farmers could not survive, and started cutting down their durian trees to replace them with rubber trees. I wanted to solve this problem by creating varieties with different maturity. That would expand the time of harvesting, so the fruit would be available for a longer period and for a higher price. We also set out to produce varieties with different tastes and a longer shelf life, in order to broaden its popularity and to promote export.”
The experts of the breeding project of the Chanthaburi Horticultural Research Center selected eighteen varieties as parental plants. Songpol: “Only about ten years after cross-pollination we are able to assess the quality of the outside and the inside. We look at the shape, the shell, the color of the thorns, the length of the stalk, the weight, the color, the taste, texture and smell of the flesh, the size of the seed, the fruit setting and the production.”
By now the durian breeding project has delivered ten varieties, simply numbered from 1 to 10. Songpol: “The Chanthaburi 1 to 3 have an early maturity, 4 to 6 have a moderate maturity, and 7 to 9 a late maturity. They have all been released. The numbers 10 and further are bred for their attractiveness.”
Although Dr. Songpol has recently retired, he has set himself two more goals. The first has to do with the commercially most important variety of durian, Monthong. “A big problem is that Monthong is susceptible to the fungus Phytophthora. This fungus infects the roots and eventually the trees die. I want to produce a resistant hybrid.”
His second ‘dream’ might turn out as controversial as the odorless durian: breeding a thornless durian. Without protective clothes and gloves handling the thorny durian is a painful job. Eliminating the thorns would make them easier to harvest, pack and ship. Yes, he knows he will meet with resistance, as the name ‘durian’ derives from the Malay word for ‘spike’. “People say that without thorn the durian loses its symbol,” he says with a broad smile, signifying that he cannot be bothered.
May 2016, by Karolien Bais, image Mijnd Huijser
What makes people so fascinated by a certain type of plant that they spend their whole life searching for it? Where does their perseverance come from? I have interviewed botanical amateurs and professionals about their lives and passions. Enjoy their stories!
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