Tree-picking: Jackfruits

There is an old jackfruit tree in my backyard which came with the house. It is about 2 and a half stories tall with large branches that encroach towards the kitchen, and into the 2nd level bathroom. Jackfruits take 5-6 years to bear fruit and are most productive after 15 years, given the height, girth of the tree and its fruiting abilities I suppose the one in my yard is at least 30 years old.

Since the history of my estate goes back at least 50 years this tree must’ve been planted by its early homeowners. Another interesting fact is that the Singapore Land Authority / Nparks owns all the large trees within the estate (even those within our private premises/gardens). This being the case, we cannot cut down or trim the trees without their permission. The jackfruit tree thus stands as an (almost) untouched relic, lording over the inhabitants of the home.

Wolf in sheep’s clothes?

The keen eyed reader may have noticed something suspicious by now. What I’ve called a “jackfruit” doesn’t look entirely like one. For those who frequent the wet markets, you may have come across a fruit, similar to jackfruit, called the cempedak. Alittle more about this fruit (from the National Library’s webpage):

Cempedak (Artocarpus integer), also spelt “chempedak”, is a tropical fruit from the Moraceae family. It can be found in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Cempedak is similar to the jackfruit in appearance as well as in the way the fruit is used.  The cultivated species was believed to have come from bangkong, a wild variety of cempedak”“.

More on the (supposed “wild”) bangkong and cempedak:

The bangkong fruit is harvested only for its seeds while the fleshy part (bland testing) is not eaten. It is an important part of the Orang Asli diet, especially when they go hunting for days in the forest. It also provides emergency food rations for rural villages. Wild crop relatives like bangkong are also really important as a genetic resource for plant breeders.

The lack of aroma and taste in the bangkong fruit led Corner to hypothesise that cempedak was domesticated from bangkong. However, another tropical botanist, Richard B. Primack, thought differently. He had found cempedak growing in the most remote forests of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo Island. From this he surmised that cempedak and bangkong originated separately from each other.”

My experience with ripe cempedak is that it has incredibly sweet, custardy flesh that taste akin to jackfruit but with a honey-like heaviness. It also has notes of durian, custard apple and pineapple.

The reason why I (and my friend Chunwai) suspected that the tree had cempadak genes was because of its small long, oblong shape with a “waist” in the middle of the fruit. The spikes on the fruit’s outer skin are also dull and not as sharp as those traditionally found on jackfruits.

Cross-breeding of plants within the Moraceae family (consisting of amongst others – jackfruit, breadfruit, cempedak and bangkong) is extremely common and I am convinced this “jackfruit” is in fact a jackfruit-cempedak hybrid.

But for the purposes of this article and simplicity, we will just refer to this plant as a jackfruit.

When are jackfruits ripe?

Few things to look out for:

  • Seasons – jackfruit harvest season is September to January
  • Smell – tree ripened fruits give off a strong sweet smell
  • Sight – the fruits on our tree turn slightly greenish-yellow when ripe and have black/brown “spots” on the skin, the peduncle (the stem of the fruit connecting it to the tree branch will usually turn fully brown)
  • Touch – the fruit is slightly soft to the touch and will “give” when pressed (as opposed to being firm and hard)

A lesson I’ve learnt with the jackfruit tree in the backyard is not to judge a fruit by its size, smaller fruits can also be ripe if they meet the above-mentioned requirements.

How to harvest jackfruits?

To harvest a ripe jackfruit, you will need an oiled knife and (if the fruit is high in the canopy) a long pole. The oil prevents the white fruit sap from sticking to the knife and allows for easy cutting.

Be very careful when harvesting jackfruits as they are heavy (weighing anywhere between 3kg to 20kg) and can leave you with a serious injury if it falls on you. This was the case with our roof which has dents / holes in them due to the falling fruits.

Here are some lovely pictures taken by my friend Kalya of our harvesting:

Once you have your jackfruit, start by cutting it into two halves again with an oiled knife. If your “jackfruit” is a cempadek hybrid like mine, then oil your hands and dig into the fruit’s rags (which are the stringy bits between the flesh) and pull out the fleshy fruit pods, cutting into the fruit where necessary. I found it useful to cut away the white middle “core” of the jackfruit before pulling out the pods.

How to eat jackfruit?

Jackfruit flesh, seeds and rags are edible, for extremely young jackfruits just peel off the skin with a knife and the whole fruit can be boiled as a starch. The sweet flesh can be added into curries, salads, or desserts and the seeds can be toasted or boiled. They taste like macadamia nuts.

*I would like to thank my wonderful neighbours for lending me their clothing pole to poke down some jackfruits. Hopefully as the final fruits of 2020 ripen, we will have enough to share them (if the squirrels don’t get to them first).

Best,

J.

Growing Ken’s Special Pumpkin in Singapore

Here’s another one from the Garden Journal: Ken’s Special Pumpkin. This is the most common type of pumpkin grown in Singapore and also termed ‘Japanese pumpkin’. I recall seeing dozens of these being sold at Spectra Primary School’s farmer’s market last year and wanted to grow it ever since. Its a highly ornamental ribbed-skinned pumpkin which tastes great roasted with some sea salt and pepper.

I bought the seeds off a florist at block 453 Ang Mo Kio at Chong Boon Market, the stall vendor owns a small plot at Lim Chu Kang (‘LCK’) and always sells bags of freshly picked young four-winged beans or Chinese traditional medicine (weeds mostly). We became friends after she caught me snooping around the bags of herbs and asked if I knew what they were – at that point I had just set up the SMU TCM Herb section and replied with their names. She was shocked – could a lowly millennial really know the wisdom of Lao Tzu.. I convinced her by saying the only thing aunties get assured by: “aiyah aunty… my ah ma teach me one”.

Nowadays when I walk past she’d be sure to say “girl today have wild bitter gourd” or “Si Fang Dou lai le (four winged bean is here already)” – she knows that I’m her most loyal customer and will buy anything she throws at me from the LCK plot. Recently she started to sell seeds too, from a brand called “Go Organic”. This is the same brand I saw being sold at Gardener’s Day Out, so I bought one pack of pumpkin seeds to try out.

HOW TO GROW KEN’S SPECIAL PUMPKIN

First, plant the seeds 2cm deep into the soil and at least 15 cm apart. I grew two vines in one big styrofoam box. I recorded planting my seeds sometime late November 2019.

Relying on whats recorded in my book:

The vine started to reach across out of the styrofoam box, into the vegepod and it started to sink its roots into the empty patches of soil. Usually these roots would emerge from a node under a leaf before diving into the soil.

(Following from sowing on November 2019) By 21 December 2019, the vine had its first buds of male flowers. Typically the flowers form around the same height as the leaf stalks. The leaves tend to adjust themselves to be sun-facing but as a result they are susceptible to catching rain drops (the leaves are also furry resulting in trapping of moisture) causing powdery mildew (fungus) to form. For my vine, the risk of mildew forming was even greater since I was growing the pumpkin as ground-cover for my Thai solider beans which covered the upper canopy and caused the growing site to be very humid and shady. I mitigated this by only watering onto the soil avoiding the leaves, and by cutting away any yellowing or weak leaves which tend to foster the evil mildew. Proper fertilisation is needed to prevent fungal attacks – high P / K.

NOTE: Pumpkins tend to form male flowers first, (approx one week) BEFORE producing female flowers, the reason for this is simple; the vine “trains” nearby bees to visit the male flowers regularly so that when the female flower appears the bees would already be in the habit of visiting the (male) flowers on the vine and would pollinate the females.

On 24 December 2019, the vine was 3.5 meters long and bore its first female flowers. There were two of them. But unfortunately, both decided that the vine was not ready to fruit, so they turned yellow and fell off after 3 days. The disappointment was immeasurable ( I told myself that I would be happy with just fried pumpkin flowers stuffed with cheese – *I wasn’t*).

Then came 12 January 2020, when I brought my friends Jie Hui and Hailin to the garden and we saw the first promising female bloom. Admittedly, by the time we spotted it, it was already pollinated by the bees. This was obvious from the exaggerated bulge of the ovary. But I did my due diligence: plucked off one male flower and positioned the fused pollen-covered anther (male parts) to touch the stigma (female part). I then left the male flower over the female flower and went away for the afternoon. The next morning, I removed the spent male flower and repeated the process with another fresh male flower. The point of this is to (1) ensure that the pollen touches the stigma and (2) to use the male flower as a shade to cover the stigma whilst pollination is happening so the pollen is not exposed to direct sunlight. This trick was taught to me by a farmer at Green Valley Farms who successfully grew 15kg winter melons, she didn’t provide any reasons for why she fused the two flowers together but this much I can guess.

By 16 January 2020, the ovary was swollen and the ridges started to form. I covered the fruit with shade netting and supported it on a metal pole that I hung above. I chose to grow the pumpkin aerially so that it wouldn’t rot on the moist soil or be vulnerable to pest attacks – seems like a good decision as the pumpkin was free from blemishes and developed an even colour throughout its skin (I notice that some pumpkins have slight discolouration at the spot where they were placed on the ground).

The netting allows sufficient air and sunlight through.

HOW TO HARVEST A KEN’S SPENCIAL PUMPKIN

On 5 February 2020, I harvested the pumpkin, there are a few ways to tell if a pumpkin is ripe:

  • gently tap on the pumpkin to see if it makes a hollow sound, if it does it should be ready for picking;
  • the outer skin should be covered in a white coating, the colours (green and white) should become duller (into olive and yellow respectively);
  • the stem connecting the pumpkin to the main vine should be brown and dry;
  • the skin should be very hard and difficult to pierce with your finger nail (don’t try this with supermarket pumpkins, people sure will scold you);
  • For ken’s special harvest it 1 month after confirmed pollination of the female flower;
  • Weighs usually between 1 – 3 kg (mine was 1.8kg, approx 50 inches circumference).

Leave the pumpkin to “cure” for 10 – 14 days after harvest this allows the pumpkin to develop more flavour and ripen up. The pumpkin turns orange after being cured.

Me: Clearly very chuffed with my pumpkin and thinking “who was I kidding I would have been devastated with just cheesy stuffed pumpkin flowers.

TASTING NOTES

The Ken’s Special taste little like sweet potato but with a firmer flesh, it is not particularly fibrous which is a good thing. My recommendation would be to cut it into thin slices and roast it in the oven with salt and pepper until browned. The sugars from the pumpkin will caramelise and release all of its umami flavours. The benefit of growing pumpkins is that they improve with time and storing pumpkins for a few months is an option if you have a bumper harvest – if not, Im sure your friends and family wouldn’t mind taking a few off you.

As always, I am trying a new variety of pumpkins in the garden this season – Thai Rai Kaw Tok Pumpkin which is flatter, speckled and more ribbed than the Ken’s Special. Will keep everyone updated on the process.

Till then – keep growing,

J.