My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter V

Fruits and Scents

“The pot herbs of the gods.”— THOREAU.

Those branches of the cultural enterprise which depend upon my own unaided exertions fail, I am bound to confess, consistently. However partial to the results of the gardener’s art, I admit with lamentations lack of the gardener’s touch. Since bereft of black labour by the seductions of rum and opium, the plantation of orange-trees has sadly degenerated; the little grove of bananas has been choked with gross over-bearing weeds, the sweet-potato patch has been absorbed, the coffee-trees elbowed out of existence. But how may one man of many avocations withstand acres of riotous and exulting weeds? Therefore do I attempt atonement for obvious neglect by the scarcely less laborious delight of acclimatising plants from distant tropical countries.

A valued and disinterested friend sends seeds which I plant for the benefit of posterity. Who will eat of the fruit of the one durian which I have nurtured so carefully and fostered so fondly? Packed in granulated charcoal as an anti-ferment, the seed with several others which failed came from steamy Singapore, and over all the stages of germination I brooded with wonder and astonishment. Since the durian is endemic in a very restricted portion of the globe, and since those who have watched the vital process may be comparatively few in number and therefore unlikely to be jaded by the truisms of these pages, a few words in explanation may not be resented. The seed of the durian is roughly cordate, about an inch and a quarter long. In the form of a disproportionately stout and blundering worm the sprout of my seed issued from the soil, peered vaguely into daylight, groped hesitatingly and arched over to bury its apex in the soil, and from this point the delicately white primal leaves sprang, and the growth has been continuous though painfully slow ever since.

Perhaps the deliberate development of the plant is gauged by eagerness and anticipation. Do I not occasionally indulge the hope of living long enough to sample the first fruits? When in such humour I long for the years to come, and thus does my good friend stimulate expectations:—

“I have been spending a small fortune in durians, they are relatively cheap and very good this season in Singapore. Like all the good things in Nature — tempests, breakers, sunsets, &c. durian is indescribable. It is meat and drink and an unrivalled delicacy besides, and you may gorge to repletion and never have cause for penitence. It is the one case where Nature has tried her hand at the culinary art and beaten all the CORDON BLEUE out of heaven and earth. Would to Heaven she had been more lavish of her essays!

“Though all durians are, perhaps, much alike and not divided like apples and mangoes into varieties, the flavour varies much according to size and ripeness. In some the taste of the custard surrounding the heart-like seeds rises almost to the height of passion, rapture, or mild delirium. Yesterday (21st June, 1907) about 2 p.m. I devoured the contents of a fruit weighing over 10 lb. At 6 p.m. I was too sleepy to eat anything, and thence had twelve hours of almost unbroken slumber.”

Since my friend is not an enthusiast in regard to tropical fruits, his reverie is all the more reasonable.

The Dyaks, who are passionately fond of the durian, distinguished it by the title of DIEN, which signifies the fruit PAR EXCELLENCE. Under such circumstances my anticipations are justifiable. To my friend I am also indebted for several young plants of the sapodilla plum (ACHRAS SAPOTA), sold in some parts of India under the spurious title of MANGOSTEEN, and considered to be one of the most luscious fruits of the tropics. Like the durian, the sapodilla plum grows all too slowly for my precipitate tastes, though I console myself plenteously with mangoes.

Now, the mango in its infinite variety possesses charms as engaging as those of Cleopatra. Rash and vain though it be, I am in such holiday humour in respect of the sweet anticipation of the durian that I cannot refrain from an attempt to chant the praises of the “little lower” fruit. Yet it is

“Beyond the power of language to enfold

The form of beauty smiling at his heart”

whose palate is tickled with such dulcet, such fantastic flavours.

How may one hope to externalise with astringent ink the aesthetic sensation of the assimilation of gusts of perfume?

A mango might be designated the unspeakable eatable, for who is qualified to determine the evanescent savours and flavours which a prime specimen of the superb fruit so generously yields? Take of a pear all that is mellow, of a peach all that is luscious, of a strawberry all that is fragrant, of a plum all that is kindly, of an apricot all its aroma, of cream all its smoothness. Commingle with musk and honey, coriander and aniseed, smother with the scent of musk roses, blend with cider, and the mixture may convey a dim sense of some of the delectable qualities of one kind of mango. To do justice to the produce of the very next tree another list of triumphant excellences might be necessary. A first-class mango is compact of so many sensations to the palate, its theme embraces such rare and delicate surprises, that the true artist in fruit-flavours is fain to indulge in paraphrase and paradox when he attempts to record its virtues and — yes, its vanities.

There are mangoes and mangoes. The very worst is not to be wholly despised. For the best there are due moods and correct environments. For some, the lofty banquet-hall, splendid with reflected lights and the flash of crystal and silver and the triumphal strains of a full band hidden by a screen of palms and tree-ferns. There are others best to be eaten to slow, soft music in a flower-bedizened glade of fairy-land.

September is the season of scents. Partly as a result of the dryness of the month, the mango trees continue to bloom as though each had determined (for the time being) to abandon all notion of utility and to devote itself solely to the keeping up of appearances. Appearances are well worth maintaining, for however trivial from a florist’s point of view the flower of the mango in detail, yet when for six weeks on end the trees present uniform masses of buff and pink, varied with shades of grey and pale green, and with the glister of wine-tinted, ribbon-like leaves, and the air is alert with rich and spicy odour, there is ample apology ever ready for the season and the direct results thereof. The trees are manifestly over-exerting themselves, in a witless competition with others which may never boast of painted, scented fruit. There is not a sufficient audience of aesthetics to tolerate the change of which the mango seems ambitious.

In Japan, where the cultured crunch hard and gritty fruits, peach and plum trees may be encouraged to expend all their force and prime in the production of bloom. Vagrant Englishmen are still so benighted that the desire for sweet and aromatic fruit vaunts over that which gives delight merely to the eye. But to assume indifference to present conditions, to decline to accept in full measure the redolence of the season which stands for spring in tropical Australia, to refuse to be grateful for it all, would be inhuman.

The limes have flowered and scattered their petals; the pomeloes (the forbidden fruit) display posies of the purest white and of the richest odour, an odour which in its depth and drowsy essence epitomises the luxurious indolence of the tropics; the lemons and oranges are adding to the swectness and whiteness, and yet the sum of the scent of all these trees of art and cultivation is poor and insipid compared with the results of two or three indigenous plants that seem to shrink from flaunting their graces while casting sweetness on the desolate air.

Just now, in some situations, the old gold orchid rivals the mango in showiness and fragrance; the pencil orchid dangles white aigrettes from the trunks and branches of hundreds of trees, saturating the air with a subtle essence as of almonds and honey; and the hoya hangs festoons from rocks and trees in such lavish disregard of space and the breathings of less virile vegetation, that the sensual scent borders on the excessive. On the hill-tops, among rocks gigantic of mould and fantastic of shape, a less known orchid with inconspicuous flowers yields a perfume reminiscent of the violet; the shady places on the flats are showy with giant crinum lilies.

It is the season of scents, and the native, untended, unpampered plants are easily and gracefully first in an uncatalogued competition. Haunting conceit on the part of the mango will not permit acknowledgment of defeat; but no impartial judge would hesitate in making his selection from among plants which in maturing make no formal appeal whatever to man, but in some cases keep aloof from notice and renown, while dissipating scents which fertilise the brain, stimulating the flowers of fancy. Not all the scents which sweeten the air are salubrious. Several are distinctly injurious. Men do not actually “die of a rose in aromatic pain,” though many may become uncomfortable and fidgety by sniffing delicious wattle-blossom; and one of the crinum lilies owes its specific title, (PESTILENTIS) to the ill effects of its stainless flowers, those who camp in places where the plant is plentiful being apt to be seized with violent sickness. An attractive fruit with an exalted title (DIOSPYROS HEBECAPRA) scalds the lips and tongue with caustic-like severity, and a whiff from a certain species of putrescent fungus produces almost instantaneous giddiness, mental anguish, and temporary paralysis.

The most elemental of all incenses — that which arises from warm, dry soil sprinkled by a sudden shower — is undoubtedly invigorating. The spirituous scent of melaleuca-trees burdens the air, not as an exhalation but as an arrogant physical part of the Isle, while a wattle (ACACIA CUNNINGHAMI) shyly proclaims its flowering by a scent as intangible and fleeting as a phantom.

“The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.” Not so in respect of the organ of smell. The more educated, the more practised nose detects the subtler odour and is the more offended by grossness. And upon what flower has been bestowed the most captivating of perfumes? Not the rose, or the violet, or the hyacinth, or any of the lilies or stephanotis or boronia. The land of forbidding smells produces it; it is known to Europeans as the Chinese magnolia. Quaint and as if carved skilfully in ivory, after the manner of, the inhabitants of its countrymen, the petals tumble apart at the touch, while fragrance issues not in whiffs but in sallies, saturating the atmosphere with the bouquet of rare old port commingled with the aroma of ripe pears and the scent of musk roses.

Some of the flowering plants of old England here dwell contentedly, leafage being free, however few and dwarfed in some cases the bloom. Roses, violets, honeysuckle, pansies, cosmos, phlox, balsams, sunflowers, zinnias, blue Michaelmas daisies, dianthus, nasturtiums, &c., are on common ground with purely tropical plants, while ageratum has become a pestiferous weed.

An early or late arrival among flowers and fruit cannot be hailed or chidden where there is but trifling seasonable variation. Without beginning and without end, the perpetual motion of tropical vegetation is but slightly influenced by the weather. Who is to say that this plant is early or that late, when early or late, like Kipling’s east and west, are one? It is not that all flowering trees and plants are of continuous growth. Many do have their appointed seasons, producing flowers and fruit according to date and in orderly progress, leaving to other species the duty of maintaining a consecutive, unbroken series which defies the mechanism of cold countries with their cast-iron calendars.

Here but three or four trees deign to recognise the cool season by the shedding of their leaves. FICUS CUNNINGHAMI discards — by no means consistently — its foliage in obedience to some spasmodic impulse, when the many thin branches, thick-strewn with pink fruit, stand out against the sky as aerial coral, fantastically dyed. But in two or three days burnished brown leaves burst from the embraces of elongated buds which, rejected, fall — pink phylacteries — to decorate the sand, while in a week the tree wears a new and glistening garment of green. The flame-tree (ERYTHRINA INDICA) slowly abandons its foliage; but before the last yellow-green leaf is cast aside the fringe of the blood-red robe soon to overspread has appeared. The white cedar (MELIA CONFERTA) permits its leaves to become yellow and to fall lingeringly, but its bareness is merely for a week or so. So also does the foliage of the moo-jee (TERMINALIA MELANOCARPA) turn to deepest red and is discarded, but so orderly is the disrobing and the never varying fashion of foliage that the tree averts the scorn of the most respectable of neighbours.

Month after month of warm days and plenteous rain during the early part of 1909 produced an effect in the acacias which cannot be too thankfully recorded. The blooming season extended from March 29th to July 17th, beginning with ACACIA CUNNINHHAMI and ending with the third flush of A. AULACOCARPA. During a third of the year whiffs of the delicious perfume of the wattle were never absent, for two flushes of A. FLAVESCENS filled in the brief intervals between those of AULACOCARPA. This latter, the commonest of the species on the island, produces its flowers in long spikes in the axils of the leaves on the minor branches, weighting such branches with semi-pendulous plumes laden with haunting perfume. The fragrance of the bounteous, sacrificial blooms saturates miles of air, while their refuse tricks out the webs of spiders great and small with fictitious favours, and carpets the earth with inconstant gold.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/banfield/ej/b21tr/chapter5.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32