As the world's rainforests steadily disappear, we are losing many valuable plants. By thinking globally and acting locally Alan and Susan Carle are trying to save what species they can from the jaws of extinction.
Physically, The Botanical Ark is quite unlike the structure into which, the Bible records, Noah went with animals two-by-two. Conceptually, it's quite similar.
It's a Noah's Ark of useful tropical plants, secured in a remote corner of the Earth's most isolated continent, Australia, and adjacent to the Daintree wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef.
The Botanical Ark is a 30-acre property located past canefields and pineapple plantations, at the very end of the gently winding Whyanbeel Road, in the rainforest at Miallo. It's north of Port Douglas and about a 90 minute drive from Cairns.
At first glance it is just another property tucked away in the lush green Whyanbeel Valley, with its pristine waterfalls, creeks and clumps of wild ginger growing by the roadside. But take a closer look and you'll quickly discover this is quite an extraordinary and unique place.
The Botanical Ark is a living museum, a shelter for useful botanical treasures collected over 20 years from the world's fast-vanishing tropical jungles.
Some of the trees and shrubs that thrive in the Botanical Ark, no longer exist in their natural habitat overseas. Within just a few years, their former homes - vast tracts of the world's great rainforests have been logged and burnt. And worse, the clearing and destruction is still continuing at the alarming rate of one acre per second. Think about that.
About 60 members and friends of the Rare Fruit Council's Mossman Branch welcomed the opportunity to inspect the Botanical Ark in November, with hosts Alan and Susan Carle.
The visit opened a window into the lifestyle and commitment of this truly remarkable couple. The Carles have designed their home and garden for their environment, not for the mass tourist market. Their enthusiasm and dedication, like their magnificent garden, is exceptional and contagious.
"When we bought the property in 1981 there were no trees - it was a cattle property," said Alan. "What you see today is the result of 20 years of hard labour." The transformation is nothing less than amazing.
The Botanical Ark was chosen for its position in Australia's wet tropics. High rainfall, measured in metres not millimetres, has created lush jungle and permanently flowing creeks.
It was established initially to create a self-reliant farm. "We intended to grow fruit trees," Alan said. "The garden certainly has changed a lot over the years. To earn an income, we grew heliconias and gingers, bold tropical flowers, which we sold ... we now grow them for ourselves and our visitors to enjoy."
The property in remote Far North Queensland, which Susan and Alan call home, is a far cry from their birthplace, he from near Woodstock, in the Catskill Mountains, and she from bustling New York. Ever since he was a youngster, Alan wanted to be "an Australian". He devoured information about Australia, particularly its tropical north, and for quite some time had his heart firmly set on living on the Great Barrier Reef. When the opportunity arose, he relocated to Queensland and studied marine biology at James Cook University. Susan, who was only 10 when she first met Alan, came for a holiday to visit her childhood friend ... and never went back.
The garden of the Botanical Ark has been designed for the interaction between people and the incredible world of tropical plants. Those plants that are used more frequently by the Carles are sited closer to the house.
Susan collected a few leaves from an inconspicuous bush, crushed them between her fingers and invited our group to take a sniff: the exotic spicy warmth of the clove tree was instantly recognisable. "We gather bark, leaves and roots from various plants to make curry," she said.
The search for new plants led Alan and Susan to some of the most remote regions of the tropical world - from the Amazon to Central Africa, from Papua New Guinea to the dense jungles of South East Asia, Madagascar ... more than 40 tropical countries, each with its own unique vegetation.
The couple's interest in tropical botany was further boosted by the Rare Fruit Council, to which they belong, whose members remain actively involved in the promotion of unusual and rare tropical fruits.
"During our trips we keep finding interesting and unusual fruits - around 400 species of which are now growing in our garden - some are fast growers; others we may not see bear in our lifetime," said Alan. "Sometimes we live with the local people, who have taught us how to collect and prepare various fruits and seeds, what to avoid and how to cure 'Bali belly', itches and rashes.
"But the world's rainforests are vanishing fast - they're being logged, burnt and cleared. We travel back to places which had been rainforests just five years previously - and there's nothing. The jungle has been cleared, the trees and animals have disappeared. The people who live there have accumulated generations of knowledge about their environment and sustainable living, a wealth of knowledge, and they are disappearing also.
"If we save the forests, we save the fruits and we foster that special knowledge about the great forests. Who knows what important scientific and medical discoveries might be made by studying the botanical diversity in these rainforests - perhaps a cure for cancer, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's Disease? Who knows what opportunities have been lost forever because such rainforests have been destroyed?"
Some seeds grown at the Botanical Ark, collected from trees and plants in now vanished rainforests, are finding their way back to these ruined areas. With care and time, they may help re-establish part of the former forest. Sadly, in many areas it's already too late to rehabilitate the forests and, as the message goes: extinction is forever.
The support role of trees in biodiversity is often overlooked, too. On one overseas trip, Susan and Alan and some colleagues observed a single tree growing in a forest which contained 65 species of epiphytes, and was also host to thousands of animals and insects.
The Botanical Ark contains a quarantine station, which is being expanded. It has been designed so that no plants or insects can get in or out. When the couple return to Australia after a collecting trip, Quarantine officials meet them at Cairns Airport.
There's a "mountain of paperwork" including import permits to be dealt with. Then, their incoming collection is fumigated for about two hours with methyl bromide, to destroy any unwanted bugs. At times the treatment proves too severe and the plants are also destroyed, dashing the results of two years of planning and collecting.
"In the early days we've lost whole shipments because the fumigation has been too strong," said Alan. "But quarantine is absolutely essential to protect our own rainforests and cultivated areas - people must be careful not to smuggle in plants which could unleash devastating pests and diseases or weeds."
Plant quarantine on the Botanical Ark is supervised by government officials, and may last weeks, months or years. Even when plants get the all-clear and are released from quarantine, they are checked regularly to ensure they don't suddenly take over the Carles' rainforest.
This suitability check actually starts in the tropical jungles of the world, before the plants are collected. Some plants look promising in their place of origin, but closer inspection indicates they may tend to overrun their competition or cause other problems. These are usually not collected by the couple.
While collecting overseas, Alan regularly samples various fruits. Some prove excellent, others have caused severe swelling and pain. He warns visitors to the Botanical Ark to treat every plant as if it was poisonous - because some are quite toxic, and some harmless looking fruit can be quite dangerous to humans, even in small amounts.
Research by Alan and Susan has yielded some notable successes. The Costus, whose botanical family contains more than a hundred species produce an exciting flower that comes in various shapes, colours and flavours. In tropical areas such as The Congo, South East Asia, and Amazonia local people never ate the flowers, but used the crushed stems for medicinal purposes and matting; the roots were supposedly useful as a contraceptive. Now the colourful flowers are appearing in a variety of dishes including salads.
Just past a large dam, about five and a half metres deep and inhabited by fish and at least one platypus, there's a grove of small trees from Nigeria. They are Synsepalum dulcificum, better known as the Miracle Fruit. The small red berries are an amazing natural sweetener - Susan explained that the complex protein in the fruit coats one's taste buds and blocks out the acid and sour receptors - making the sourest lemon taste deliciously sweet. This sensation can last for up to two hours.
The garden tour continued. A magnificent sugar palm, purple and green star apples; then the keppel apple, once only grown by royalty in Asia, apparently has properties that mask unpleasant bodily odours ... Next, the water cherry, virtually tasteless but refreshing; "tastes like crunchy water," commented Susan.
We paused at a giant jaboticaba, a native of Brazil, which was not fruiting at the time. Interestingly, a jaboticaba growing near a large pond overlooked by the Carle's home, had an excellent crop of cherry-like regular-sized fruit.
Alan pointed out a plant used to treat sting-ray injuries; another with waxy leaves which, when dried, produced a flaky wax useful in industry. There's no doubt: Alan is a hands-on sort of guide.
From another shrub he plucked a large dark red berry which, with a squeeze, covered his hand in a bright red liquid. "This is something we all use every day, in a huge range of products," Alan said.
It is one of the most cultivated plants in the tropics - but outside the tropics it's virtually unknown. This is the Bixa orelliana, also called annato or lipstick plant, which grows to about 3-4m and produces pink coloured flowers. first, followed by large hairy seedpods that look like a rambutan. The pods split to reveal about 30 waxy seeds coated in what looks like lipstick. The dye was used in the Antilles and parts of Guiana about the time Columbus was discovering America. The indigenous people painted the dye over their bodies to scare off their enemies. Early in the 19th century the dye was used to colour cheeses, butter, calico, feathers and ornaments.
It's a nice ornamental tree and the fruit is tasteless, odourless, non-toxic ... and still used in an amazing array of modern-day products to provide colour to margarine, biscuits, cosmetics ... and so on.
A short distance further along the track was an example of the need to plant the right tree in the right place. Some years ago, Alan and Susan planted dozens of a particular variety of fast-growing tree in an area, to provide shade and kill off the grass a protected understorey of smaller trees and shrubs followed. The plan worked perfectly until a cyclone hit - not unusual in the . tropics and the shallow-rooted trees toppled and fell in disarray across the garden, crushing everything below tonnes of mangled branches, trunks and leaves. Chainsaws worked day and night to clear the debris. Today, a solitary giant tree remains, and the garden is regrowing.
There are many varieties of breadfruit and, Alan believes, it is one of the most important trees on the Botanical Ark. "It can provide all the carbohydrates for the family and deserves government support to develop an industry - which I'm sure would be a great success," . he said. A friend has told him of a red-skinned, white-fleshed variety of breadfruit somewhere in the Pacific. Alan searches on.
Spiky but delicious, the Balinese Salak produces excellent fruit. The Thai salak is sour, but the Thai people have done a lot with it, and the fruit is gaining popularity. Try cooking it with fish. The salak needs to be de-suckered regularly, and although it is not as prickly as the peach palm - growing nearby and which tastes nothing like a peach - it must be treated with caution. Prickles tend to break off easily and are prone to cause infection.
The peach palm, with fruit very rich in vitamin A and B, has several uses. The fruit can be roasted and tastes like roasted chestnut. The heart of the palm is used in so-called millionaire's salad: a meal normally made from coconut palms. However, the process kills the coconut palm; peach palm, a suckering plant, is self-sustaining.
And close by, a jackfruit. Susan and Alan aim to develop a perfect onekilogram jackfruit which would have excellent marketing potential. The future is bright for jackfruit, they believe, and their garden is home to about 20 varieties.
Feral pigs also like jackfruit and breadfruit, and the Carles have seen entire plantations wiped out by the pests.
A relative of the turmeric grows in a small clump, threatening to encroach the walking track. It is used to cure cramps and headaches.
Mangosteens grow well on the Botanical Ark, too. Growing here, the mundu, a close relative of the mangosteen, produces about 1,500 fruit per crop, sometimes managing two crops a year. This great cropper is definitely worth a place in any tropical orchard. The Carle's tree, which produces a sweet yellow fruit, yields close to a half tonne of fruit a year.
Even sweeter is the sweet prayer plant. According to Alan, it's fruit is about 4,000 times sweeter than sugar. "It's so sweet you can feel your teeth tingle," he said.
Then there's the durian, Asia's so-called king of fruit. The durian certainly has a love-hate relationship with most who come in contact with its fruit. They hate the smell, but usually love the taste. Alan, for one, loves the taste. He suggests that one way of getting used to the smell of the fruit is to sniff the blossoms, with their milder aroma. There are eight species, some quite rare, growing at the Botanical Ark.
Susan and Alan are planning another collecting expedition soon, probably back to Borneo. Theirs is an undeniably busy lifestyle, with gardening punctuated by visits from specialty groups, conferences and as a site location for filming, workshops and the like. Additionally, Alan is a frequent flyer to Singapore, where he is a senior design consultant with the Singapore Botanical Gardens.
The Botanical Ark is living proof that dreams can come true.
For further information, Susan and Alan Carle can be contacted at:
PO Box 354 Mossman Queensland, Australia 4873 Phone: 610740988174 Fax: 61 0740988173
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org URL: www. botanicalark.com
Please note: The Botanical Ark is not open to the public at this stage. Tours for groups can be booked. Group bookings may be made by appointment only.
DATE: December 2001
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