Tropical fruit fanatic to publish comprehensive book

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Tropical fruit fanatic to publish comprehensive book

Botanist Dr Rolf Blancke's obsession with plants began as a child on his parents' 600-acre nursery in Germany, and it was to take him around the world from the depths of the Amazon, to South East Asia and his adopted home in Costa Rica where he has lived since 1995. From his garden in the coastal town of Puerto Viejo, he tells about a project to publish the most comprehensive book ever produced for general readers on the world's tropical fruits, complete with descriptions of more than 330 species, lush photographs, some hand-drawn diagrams, and range maps.

Blancke has a headstart with the 45 fruit and vegetable species in his own garden, while he manages a 10-room hotel business where he makes a living along with guided tours.

While he has spent a great deal of time showing the natural wonder of Costa Rica to tourists, his current venture is taking his interest in plant life to a whole new level.

The Engkala is a rare fruit from Borneo that Blancke describes as like a 'spicy avocado'

"First of all there is an enormous diversity of fruit trees in the tropics yet so little is known about them and only very few are commercially used; various tropical fruits are traded locally though that are not that well known outside, for example Nance (Byrsonima crassifolia) or Garcinia Lateriflora - the latter of which is very rare, but has started to grow in Australia as it has ideal conditions," he says.

"As more and more tropical fruits appear in supermarkets of North America and Europe, and as general interest in tropical forests and their conservation continues to grow, I am convinced it is very important to educate people about tropical fruit – where they come from, what they are used for and what their future potential might be.

"I hope that by educating people about tropical fruits, they might be encouraged to learn more about the tropics themselves – about its beauty and the way people depend on tropical forests, as do we and all future generations."

Research for his book, to be published by Zona Tropical Publications, includes travels throughout South East Asia and the Americas. Blancke is raising funds to support the book through Kickstarter.

Exotic delicacies

In his own garden Blancke has such delicacies as Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), Arazá (Eugenia stipitata), plum mangoes (Bouea macrophylla), cas guava (Psidium friedrichsthalium) and Guanabana (soursops), although he admits the last two are not particularly rare in Costa Rica.

"The Arazá is a very fragrant fruit – even on the tree you can smell its intensity and it’s excellent with ice cream or mixing with water," he says.

"Another example is the sundrop (Eugenia victoriana), and you can use the pulp to put on ice sorbet with sugar. I think that's got great commercial potential, similar to the guanabana that is good for milk-based drinks; an underestimated fruit and I have to say it’s one of my favorites."

But despite references to the business potential of different exotic fruits, Blancke says the real purpose of the book is to embrace diversity.

"I want to show that tropical fruit is more than just pineapples, bananas and mangoes - there is a lot more out there than what is traded."

"One of the most enigmatic fruit I have encountered so far from a personal point of view is the Engkala (Litsea garciae). It is in the Avocado family, very rare and very showy with bright pink fruits, which taste somewhat like spicy avocados.

"I really wanted a picture of that fruit. It was a quest and took me two entire years to find a single tree, which I encountered in Puerto Rico."

He adds from a scientific point of view the most enigmatic fruit he's encountered is the Kepel (Stelechocarpus burahol) in the Annona family, which is a relative of cherimoyas and soursops but looks totally different.

"The cauliflorus tree produces brown fruits on the trunk. The consumption of the pulp acts as a natural deodorant for the mouth. It is said that even the sweat and urine smell like perfume after eating the fruit.

"The fruit is also used as a contraceptive in India, producing temporary infertility in women."

For Blancke, the strangest fruit he has encountered is the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) - a berry that contains a glycoprotein molecule called miraculin, which binds the tongue's taste buds and makes sour food taste sweet.

The botanist also has a passion for Andean tuber varieties and different types of cacao.

Keep your eyes peeled at Fresh Fruit Portal in mid-September, when we will be kicking off with the first installment of a five-part guest column series on Blancke's captivating fruit quest experiences.

Photo: Rolf Blancke

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