The durian (Durio zibethinus) is often dubbed “king of tropical fruits” and a native of Southeast Asia.1 The name “durian” was derived from the Malay word for thorns, duri.2 The renowned naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, said this about the fruit: “It is like a buttery custard flavoured with almonds, intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities ... It is neither acid, nor sweet, nor juicy, yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is”.3 There were others who also spoke strongly about the fruit, but to contrary effect.4 For instance, Sir Stamford Raffles reportedly found the odour of durians nauseating and disliked it.5 Probably no other fruit has had so many contradictory descriptions written of its smell and flavour.6 As a result of cultivation and propagation, many varieties of durians exist in Southeast Asia. For instance, one species of wild durian – the Durio singaporensis (Singapore Durian) – is named after Singapore.
The king of tropical fruits
The durian tree is a tropical fruit tree under the order Malvales, family Bombacaceae.7 It is thought to have originated from either Malaya or Borneo, and has been cultivated for centuries in tropical Asia.8 It is said to be the most highly prized fruit in the region.9 In fact, in a news report in 2013, Singaporeans were reported venturing deep into jungles and trespassing into protected forested areas to gather ripe wild durians which had fallen from the trees.10
Lorong Lew Lian in Singapore was named in 1956 after the fruit — “lew lian” means durian in the Hokkien dialect. This is among other roads in the Upper Serangoon Road area named after local fruits.11 Durian saplings were once planted in Lorong Lew Lian by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong during the launch of the Clean and Green Week in the estate in 1995.12
The durian tree can grow up to 120 ft (approximately 36.6 m).13 It has a straight trunk from which numerous horizontal branches extend.14 The bark of the tree is flaky and has shades of grey or reddish brown. Its leaves are simple and vary from a pale olive colour to bronze green.15
Durian trees reach maturity between five and seven years, and produce fruits twice a year.16 Flowers are borne only for a day, during which they are pollinated and drop off. The melon-shaped fruit then takes approximately three months to ripen, before falling and splitting on the ground. This attracts many forms of wildlife to eat the fruit and then disperse the seeds, thus propagating the fruit.17 Propagation can also be achieved with grafting and budding.18
Typically, the quality of the durian fruit is best when the tree is 30 to 60 years old.19 The fruit usually has a length of 20 to 35 cm, and a diameter of 18 to 22 cm. The weight could range from 1 to 9 kg.20 It is distinguished by its olive-green colour and coarse rind, which is studded with sharp spikes. This thick armour protects the fruit from being damaged by the impact of falling from great heights.21 Durians are not plucked but allowed to fall, which is when they are best consumed.22
The segments of the fruit reveal several portions of creamy yellow flesh, each encasing a hard, light-brown seed. It is the rich, custard-like flesh that is typically consumed. The flesh, however, has a pungent aroma that some people find offensive. Its odour is so overpowering that it is the only fruit banned from airline cabins, hotels and some types of public transport systems.23 For example, Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations have prominent signboards indicating the ban, which was followed by a fine if violated. A ban on durians in MRT trains was implemented by the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation in 1988 due to its lingering odour, which was made worse in the air-conditioned trains.24
As a result of cultivation and propagation, many varieties of durians exist in Southeast Asia. Depending on the country of origin, these varieties are named differently. Varieties cultivated in Malaysia typically have names starting with D, followed by a numerical code, such as D10 and D24. Those from Thailand are usually named in Thai based on the characteristics of their fruits. For example, Mon Thong, which means “golden pillow”, is a nod to the pillow-like shape of the fruit.25 On the other hand, Indonesian varieties are mostly named according to their place of origin.26
There is a species of wild durian named after Singapore, the Durio singaporensis (Singapore Durian). Endemic to Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia, it can only be found in Nee Soon Swamp Forest and areas near Upper Seletar and MacRitchie Reservoirs in Singapore. Unlike the edible durian, the Singapore Durian does not have a fleshy fruit.27 The species Durio singaporensis Ridl. was first described and named by Henry Nicholas Ridley,28 the first Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. His description, published in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1916, had mentioned that the plant was found in Bukit Timah, Ang Mo Kio, Seletar, Johore Bahru and Mount Austin.29 In 2017, it was reported that the National Parks Board was growing the native species of some tropical fruits in Pasir Panjang Nursery, including Durio singaporensis.30
Uses and applications
The durian fruit is an important and nutritious source of food for many wild animals that inhabit the rainforest. Evidence shows that even tigers and elephants are fond of the fruit, which has high vitamin and mineral content, including vitamins B, C and E. The durian is also a source of carbohydrate, protein, iron and potassium.31
Arguably, the durian fruit tastes best when eaten fresh, but there are other ways to enjoy it as well.32 For example, the flesh is also used to make desserts such as dodol (a traditional dessert made from durian pulp cooked with sugar), durian cakes and paste, as well as durian jam. The Malay community favours the practice of adding prawn paste to salted, preserved durian flesh (tempoyak).33 Another popular method is to preserve the flesh with brown sugar, then boil or fry it (lempok).34 More recently introduced durian desserts include durian puffs, durian chendol and durian ice-kachang.35 Also edible are the durian seeds, which can be served either boiled, baked or fried.36
It is said that the fruit has aphrodisiac properties.37 A preparation of the durian tree’s roots and leaves is prescribed by traditional doctors for fever and jaundice.38
The Chinese believe that the durian is “heaty” and overeating will cause coughing and fever. Some believe that filling the durian husks with water and drinking it can reduce the “heatiness”, prevent cough and is said to be effective in ridding the odour of durians. There is a myth about the lethal combination of durians and alcohol. It is believed that the mixture is too “heaty” for the body, and thus may cause death.39 However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence of these practices, although over-consumption might cause heartburn and bloatedness arising from the higher fibre and carbohydrate content in the fruit.40
Common name: There are many common names for durian based on the species and geographical location, such as Durian daun, Durian kampong41 and Thu-rian42
Scientific name: Durio zibethinus. The word durio was coined in 1763, derived from the Malay word duri which means “thorns”. Zibethinus was coined by a scientist in 1774. It was named such because the fruit’s pungent smell was reminiscent of zibetto, which is Italian for “civet cat”.43
1. Suranant Subhadrabandhu and Saichol Ketsa, Durian: King of Tropical Fruit (Wellington: Daphne Brasell Associates Ltd, with Lincoln University Press, 2001), 1. (Call no. RSEA 634.6 SUB)
2. Jacqueline M. Piper, Fruits of South-east Asia: Facts and Folklore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 18. (Call no. RSING 634.60959 PIP)
3. Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago ([Hong Kong]: Periplus Editions (HK), 2008), 57–58. (Call no. RSEA 915.9804 WALR-[TRA])
4. Piper, Fruits of South-east Asia, 17.
5. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, trans. A. H. Hill (Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2009), 79. (Call no. RSEA 959.5 ABD)
6. Berry Molesworth Allen, Malayan Fruits: An Introduction to the Cultivated Species (Singapore: D. Moore, 1967), 98. (Call no. RCLOS 634.09595 ALL)
7. Subhadrabandhu and Ketsa, Durian, 3; I. H. Burkill, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, vol. 1 (Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, 1966), 885 (Call no. RCLOS 634.909595 BUR); Allen, Malayan Fruits, 94.
8. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 98.
9. Wendy Hutton, Tropical Fruits of Malaysia & Singapore (Hong Kong: Periplus Editions, 2000), 20 (Call no. RSING 634.6 HUT)
10. Zachary Soh, “For Durians, They Dare,” New Paper, 29 November 2013, 20–21. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 236. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
12. Dominic Nathan, Yeow Pei Lin and Leong Ching Ching, “Think ‘Home’ and Keep Common Areas Clean, Residents Urged,” Straits Times, 6 November 1995, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 94.
14. Piper, Fruits of South-east Asia, 20.
15. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 94.
16. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 97–98.
17. Peter Yeap, Durian: The True Pearl of the Orient (Malaysia: Pepeta, 2006), 46. (Call no. RSEA 634.6 YEA)
18. Desmond Tate, Tropical Fruit (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2007), 60. (Call no. R 634.6 TAT)
19. Yeap, True Pearl of the Orient, 22.
20. Tate, Tropical Fruit, 60.
21. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 97.
22. Tate, Tropical Fruit, 60.
23. Hutton, Tropical Fruits of Malaysia & Singapore, 20.
24. “Durians Banned on MRT Trains,” Straits Times, 31 May 1988, 16; Nor E. Badron, “King of Fruits Goes Places, Despite Its Smell,” Straits Times, 10 June 1990, 14; Jaime Ee, “Durians for the Discerning,” Business Times, 6 June 1998, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Subhadrabandhu and Ketsa, Durian, 28–34.
26. Othman Yaacob and Suranant Subhadrabandhu, The Production of Economic Fruits in South-east Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 94. (Call no. RSEA 634.0959 OTH)
27. “Durio Singaporensis Ridl,” National Parks Board, accessed 27 September 2019. 28. J. W. Purseglove, The Ridley Centenary, 10th December, 1955 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1955), 6. (Call no. RCLOS 580.924 SIN)
29. H. N. Ridley, “New and Rare Malayan Plants,” Series VIII, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society no. 73 (July 1916): 139–46. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
30. Samantha Boh, “Fruit Cousins in the Wild,” Straits Times, 13 October 2017, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Rolf Blancke, Tropical Fruits and Other Edible Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide (New York: Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press, 2016), 96 (Call no. RSEA 634.6 BLA); Piper, Fruits of South-east Asia, 20.
32. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 99.
33. Tate, Tropical Fruit, 60; Blancke, Tropical Fruits and Other Edible Plants of the World, 96.
34. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 98.
35. Yeap, True Pearl of the Orient, 34–41.
36. Blancke, Tropical Fruits and Other Edible Plants of the World, 96.
37. Piper, Fruits of South-east Asia, 20, 22.
38. Tate, Tropical Fruit, 60; Piper, Fruits of South-east Asia, 20.
39. Hutton, Tropical Fruits of Malaysia & Singapore, 14; Hugh Mabbett, “'The Flavour of Heaven and the Smell of Hell',” Straits Times, 6 July 1968, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
40. Poon Chian Hui, “Durians’ Thorny Issues: Experts Debunk 5 Commonly-Held Beliefs about the Fruit,” Straits Times, 14 July 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
41. Yeap, True Pearl of the Orient, 84.
42. Allen, Malayan Fruits, 99.
43. Lim Tong Kwee, Durian: Diseases and Disorders (Kuala Lumpur: Tropical Press, 1990), 1, 3. (Call no. RSING 634.609595 LIM)
Michael Keon, The Durian Tree (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960). (Call no. RCLOS 823.91 KEO)
The information in this article is valid as at 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.