Bald durians are real - they're just 'one in a million'

In Indonesia, durians – the smelly “king of fruit” – can be found without spikes.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

There are two things the durian fruit is famous for: A smell that has been described as anything from old socks to dead cats, and its spiky skin that makes handling it such a hazard.

What if the legendary "king of fruit" had none of those infamous spikes?

Such an anomaly does exist - in the form of the rare and peculiar durian gundul, or bald durian, which was discovered more than a decade ago in Indonesia.

Scientists have been unable to explain how the bald durian came into existence. According to botanist Gregori Garnadi Hambali, it may be either the result of a natural mutation or recessive genes.

"The chances of this happening are very small… only one in a million," says Hambali, who works at the Mekarsari Fruit Garden, a biodiversity conservation centre in Bogor, south of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

The first bald durian was recorded in 2007 on the island of Lombok, east of Bali. A single smooth fruit sprouted on a tree in a villager's yard on the slopes of Mount Rinjani, along with a host of regular spiked durians.

The family were initially afraid to eat the fruit, concerned that it might be poisonous.

The following season, when the tree bore another bald durian, the owner's son decided to taste it, and discovered that it tasted just like any other durian.

"Thank God. From 50 trees… one finally bore bald durian fruit. People don't call bald durians a hoax any more," Maisin, the head of seed inspection and certification in West Nusa Tenggara province, said.

The first bald durian was recorded in 2007 on the island of Lombok, east of Bali.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Maisin - who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name - explained that only two per cent of blossoms that sprouted on that single tree turned into bald durians. The remainder withered and died, producing no fruit at all.

The smooth durians tended to grow only when the tree's male and female flowers were in proximity, suggesting it was the result of a recessive gene, according to Maisin.

From the 50 grafts taken in 2007, the provincial agricultural office has been able to produce more than 23,000 seedlings.

Many have been sent to other provinces for cultivation, but none of the fruit produced by trees that grew from those seedlings have turned out bald.

Botanists from the Mekarsari Fruit Garden also took grafts to plant at the centre. As of 2019, it had managed to grow 1,000 seedlings.

Mekarsari also sells seedlings to the public, but on its estate has only successfully grown three trees from them. And none of the fruit they have produced has been bald.

The University of Mataram's faculty of agriculture has also tried to propagate the smooth durian rarity, but has had no success in four years of trying.

All of the organisations that have attempted grafting methods to produce bald durians have been trying to establish the nature of the phenomenon.

"If this bald nature is genetic, we might be able to mass-produce the fruit with tissue-culture methodology," says Muhammad Sarjan, a professor from the University of Mataram. "But, if it is just a mutation, there is nothing we can do."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.