When the first man arrived in New Guinea many thousands of years ago, he found a country rich in the natural resources fitting to his life style as a gatherer of his food, and later, as a digger. From the mangroves and nypa palms of the salt-water swamps and river deltas on the coast, to the trees and pandanus of the inland and the high mountains, there was plenty for him to choose from, and on this diet he thrived until he graduated to the role of hunter.
In his pattern of subsistence living, he depended on the natural ground cover for his survival, and as in other parts of the Pacific-Indo-Malaysian area, he had a predominantly starchy diet of the available root crops such as yams (Dioscorea spp.), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), taro (Colocasia esculenta) and other aroids. Sago (Metroxylon spp.), coconuts (Cocos nucifera) and Bananas (Musa spp.) were the staple diet on the coast and lowlands. In the mountains, sweet potato, green vegetables and edible grasses and ferns, with the fruits of the Pandanus, sustained life on a very nutritious basis. He soon discovered a wide range of trees bearing edible fruits and nuts, and of these his people brought their inherent skill as gardeners, and many of the wild trees became cultivated staples wherever he made his gardens. Inevitably many of the trees became part of the spiritual life of the people and were endowed with myths and legends that have a curious similarity throughout the Pacific and likeness to many Indo-Malaysian beliefs.
One of the most important trees in the life and diet of the people of Papua New Guinea is the Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis. There are two varieties, one lacking seeds, the other with both edible pulp and seeds. The carbohydrate value of the Breadfruit is very high and it is a fair source of Vitamins A and B, and a good source of Vitamin C and calcium.
It is believed that the species originated in Malaysia and travelled through the Pacific with the early voyagers, long before the white man came to the area. In many areas of New Guinea, especially the Jimi Valley, the trees have been cultivated orchard-fashion along with the Pandanus, and a tree grown for its leaves, Gnetum gnemon. Long after the gardens have been deserted, the stands of breadfruit indicate previous habitations and have been a source of much information to the anthropologists.
Wild plants are usually individually owned and are tended by having the undergrowth cleared away, and often a fence erected around them to protect them from wild pigs. They are propagated by seed, root cuttings and suckers.
The most common method of eating is to roast the fruit whole in the fire and then remove the charred flesh and eat the seeds. At highwater time on the Sepik River where I was working in April, 1982, food was scarce, and in every village the breadfruit seeds were almost the only variation of the sago diet. These seeds were a very important part of our menu when my family lived in the bush just after the war. We could buy half a dozen for a sheet of newspaper, although it has got into dollars and cents now! We would roast the fruit whole in the oven, remove the skin from the seeds and then fry them in butter. There is nothing that tastes quite like them. The seedless fruits were either baked whole or cut into slices and fried.
The people themselves had a host of uses for this very special tree. Medicinally the leaves were crushed with pawpaw (Carica papaya) and lime and applied as a poultice to tropical injuries or ulcers which produced a swelling in the groin. Young roots were eaten as a vegetable but only if large numbers of seedlings came up under a mature tree. A wash made from the sap was commonly used to prepare bark for traditional painting. The wood was used for small canoe hulls especially if the canoe had a traditional usage.
A tree as important as this in the daily life of the people has to be rich in legend. A story which is basically the same is told throughout the South Pacific. On the Sepik River, an often-told story that is sung and danced, is that once, at a time of famine, the Chief gathered his people and said: "Tonight I go away, but I will be seen again. I will be with you always. Go now and sleep; when you wake in the morning there will be a tree growing. The trunk will be my body, my legs and arms the branches. The round fruit will be my head and inside will be my heart. Cook the fruit and take off the skin. The flesh, which is my flesh, and the seeds which are my love for you, will feed you all, and I shall live on if every garden is planted with young trees". And his people did, and still do.
Fruits similar to the breadfruit have been imported from other countries and introduced by the Department of Primary Industry, such as the Jakfruit and the Durian, but neither have found the favour enjoyed by the home product.
Food and light are, I think, the two most important items in the life of man; certainly in the fight for existence of the early villager it was, and a tree which gave both food and light was very much revered, and featured in the spiritual life as well as legend. Such a tree is the candlenut, Aleurites moluccana. It is another wild tree which was cultivated and planted in other locations as the need arose. The white oily kernels were strung together on the midrib of a coconut leaf and used as candles; they were also pounded, baked and mixed with salt and herbs and used as we use a relish, often when sitting around the fire at night. This is still done by the village people living away from the fringe of civilisation.
Aleurites comes from the Greek word meaning 'floury' and refers to the white down on the leaves which makes them stand out in the green of a mountainside. Today it is often grown ornamentally because of its large, angularly pointed leaves, but the flowers, though they grow in large terminal clusters, are very small and whitish and not particularly attractive. Each fruit contains one or two nuts, and the green covering, along with the tree roots, gives a black dye traditionally used throughout the Pacific and Asia to colour artifacts and tapa cloth.
The Candlenut was a very important part of Island life before the advent of the white man, and like all sources of light, many legends are told about it. In Tahiti, when teaching her son of his ancestors, a mother would say something like this: "The seed was sown. It budded; it blossomed. It spread out and budded again and joined line on line like the candlenuts strung on one stem. 'Tis lighted. It burns aglow and sheds light o'er the land".
Hawaii made the Candlenut its official tree emblem because of its many uses to the ancient Hawaiians who brought the tree with them when they came from their fabled Pacific Island. At one time it gave them light and food and was used medicinally. As time passed, the Candlenut tree filled a gap in the world just learning of the importance of oil. At one time Hawaii exported 10,000 gallons of oil and the oil cake makes a good fertilizer.
Papua New Guinea says: "In the time of the Candlenut, man is strong".
Nut trees are very important in the diet and in the social life of the village people of New Guinea, and one very important group is the Canariums. Two in particular, Canarium salomonense and Canarium indicum, are always collected when in season, and brought by the villagers into the urban markets. The trees are very widespread in coastal and inland Papua New Guinea, and are a very important supplement to the diet at the time of their season. Individually-owned trees are tended in the forest and seedlings are transplanted into the village squares as well as into the gardens. The nuts are very hard-shelled and are broken open with stones. The kernels are eaten raw or crushed and added to sago or taro puddings to which I must admit, as one who has lived on them when working in the bush, they are a great improvement.
The chemical composition of the Canarium nut has been assessed as follows:
Calories 644 per 100g
This analysis surely makes it a desirable introduction anywhere but its hard shell is a handicap to commercial exploitation. Not too many people want to sit and crack their nuts with a stone, although I must admit I have had my problems with a Brazil nut! Another desirable factor is that it can be dried over the fire and stored for a long time until the new crop comes in.
The importance of the Canarium in old village life is shown by the fact that in some areas, notably the Rai Coast of Madang, the nuts were treated ceremonially in the planting of a new garden, to ensure fertility. Trees are cultivated not only for the delicious nuts but because of the desirability of the wood in canoe-making. Common in the Pacific-Indo-Malaysia area, it has a variety of native names, but it is best known to the outside world as the Java almond. Oil for both cooking and lights has been extracted from the nuts for countless generations. An old practice was to treat burns with the masticated bark, and it works, too.
In 1885, the Russian explorer-botanist, Miklouho Maclay, arrived on the Rai Coast of Madang and recorded the common incidence of a small tree bearing a very popular nut, and this was Barringtonia edulis, a very common tree in village cultivation. It is native in most Pacific Islands and is held in great affection by the people, particularly in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. It is a beautiful tree, with magnolia-like foliage and a beautiful sweet-scented flower which opens in the evening and falls before morning. The seeds have a waterproof husk, and like the coconut, can float for long periods in water and still be fertile. In some areas the seeds are used as floats for fish nets.
The nut of this Barringtonia has a very distinctive flavour; it is usually grated and cooked with bananas, taro and sago, and believe me, it has a taste which is wholly delicious. I have eaten many such a meal when on patrol, and stayed in a hospitable village, and I assure you, it is a memorable taste, a 'nutty' nut taste.
This tree gives more than food. It is part of the village life. In the Central Province of Papua New Guinea the leaves are used in an initiation ceremony as a tribute to the new life of the initiate; in Tahiti, a legend had it that the Barringtonia sprang from the human heart, and they call it the 'hutu' tree, the word for heart. In the Pomio area of New Britain, the people believe that a village without a tree will have nothing but catastrophe, and so these are the first things planted when a new village site is chosen. In house-building, the wood is often used for beams, because its strength and beauty up above and over the people will ensure their safety and security.
Oak trees have played a large part in the history of the old world, and a member of the oak family is much cherished in the cold Highlands of New Guinea. The nuts of Castanopsis acuminatissima are a valued food among the mountain people. They are easy to harvest, the shell removes easily and the flavour is not unlike a hazel nut. The tree can be classified as a wild cultivated tree and is regularly planted as villages move on in the shifting pattern of agriculture. The wood is relatively long-lasting, a medium hardwood and was formerly used for making war shields.
The mangrove species are indeed useful trees. They thrive in the swamps and help to hold and build up land, especially near the mouths of rivers on tropical and sub-tropical coasts. An important food in the mangrove swamps of Papua New Guinea is the fruit of the Bruguiera species. The sprouting fruits are harvested, boiled in sea water to soften the skin and then peeled, sliced and soaked in sea water until they are soft. They are then placed in a string bag, the water squeezed out, and the fruit kneaded into a soft mash. This is rolled into balls and eaten with the fingers and as an adjunct to a fish meal. The wood is also used for gunwales, masts and booms in the outrigger canoes.
No account of the nut trees of the Islands of the Pacific and parts of South East Asia can be credible without mention of the beautiful Terminalias, which are considered one of the staple supplementary food crops. These are large trees occurring from the swamp forests to the canopy of the lower mountain slopes, and the mature plant with its large buttressed roots is a truly majestic sight. I planted an avenue of these in the gardens of the University of Papua New Guinea and they were the most popular trees on the campus. This is a large genus and several species have edible nuts, notably Terminalia catappa, Terminalia kaernbachii and Terminalia solomonensis. These are delicious nuts, and it is a common sight to see the kids sitting up in the trees eating the nuts. They do not have to be cooked and can be shelled and eaten straight off the tree. Some species have tougher skins than others, and have to be hammered open; they are often cooked in the mumu, the earth ovens, with bananas, taro and also in fish dishes. A dish is hardly the word to describe it, as the food is wrapped up in parcels using banana leaves, and baked on hot stones in the ground.
An eye-catching plant which is found in various forms from the beach to the mountains is the Pandanus, often called the Screw-pine family. There are about 250 species in the family, especially in the islands of the Pacific and throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. These common plants occur as trees, shrubs and climbers, some having trunks with prop roots, some having trunk and branches with aerial roots; the leaves are long, narrow, pointed, arranged in spirals at the branch tips. The fruit can be woody and globose, or long succulent aggregate heads.
It is a wonderful plant and provides housing, clothing and food for the people. The long leaves are used in thatching roofs; they are also beaten and pulled into strips and used to make skirts, and stripped into even finer threads for weaving. The fruits provide a variety of nuts and also oil and colouring for cooking. Pandanus nuts, from several species, are very delicious, either to eat raw, include in the cooking, or as we used to do, boil them, dip them in sugar and bake in the oven until firm.
Legends of the Pandanus are numerous. In New Guinea it is believed that a spirit stepped out of the Pandanus and became the sun. A mother who has a large family of loving children is likened to the many-rooted Pandanus.
I know that all you fruit people believe that it was the apple that got us into the strife of a workaday world but there is another version! A Melanesian legend tells of a goddess who was cutting Pandanus leaves into strips when she cut her finger, and the blood formed into two eggs. Out of these stepped the first man and woman.
Accompanying this paper, are lists of some of the most used species of fruit and nut trees in Papua New Guinea and there are undoubtedly many more. (See: Some Wild and Cultivated Indigenous Fruit and Nut Crops of PNG) Practially nothing has been done in research into native trees although many introductions have been made from other countries. Most of what we know about the fruit and nut trees of Papua New Guinea comes from personal knowledge of people like me, who lived there after the war. Without our friends among the people and their knowledge of native fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs, our diet would have been sparse indeed in those days of reconstruction.
Anthropological research has given us our only authentic knowledge of the uses of various species, but no agricultural research has been done.
Time and money have been spent on experiments to grow traditional western fruits and nuts, and with the exception of the Cashew nut, nothing really constructive has been achieved. A practical research programme to discover, and work on the improvement of traditional fruits and nuts, could be of immense value, not only to Papua New Guinea, but to the wide world of fruit and nut lovers.
DATE: November 1987
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