The durian has been known and consumed in Southeast Asia since prehistoric times, but has only been known to the western world for about 600 years. The earliest native reference to durian is the several bas relief panels of 9th-century Borobudur depicting durian as one of fruit offering for Javanese king, and also as one of the fruits sold in marketplace.
The earliest known European reference to the durian is the record of Niccolò Da Conti, who travelled to southeastern Asia in the 15th century.Translated from the Latin in which Poggio Bracciolini recorded Da Conti’s travels: “They [people of Sumatra] have a green fruit which they call durian, as big as a watermelon. Inside there are five things like elongated oranges, and resembling thick butter, with a combination of flavours.” The Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta described durians in Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India published in 1563. In 1741, Herbarium Amboinense by the German botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius was published, providing the most detailed and accurate account of durians for over a century. The genus Durio has a complex taxonomy that has seen the subtraction and addition of many species since it was created by Rumphius. During the early stages of its taxonomical study, there was some confusion between durian and the soursop (Annona muricata), for both of these species had thorny green fruit. It is also interesting to note the Malay name for the soursop is durian Belanda, meaning Dutch durian. In the 18th century, Johann Anton Weinmann considered the durian to belong to Castaneae as its fruit was similar to the horse chestnut.
Durio zibethinus. Chromolithograph by Hoola Van Nooten, 1863
D. zibethinus was introduced into Ceylon by the Portuguese in the 16th century and was reintroduced many times later. It has been planted in the Americas but confined to botanical gardens. The first seedlings were sent from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to Auguste Saint-Arroman of Dominica in 1884.
In southeastern Asia, the durian has been cultivated for centuries at the village level, probably since the late 18th century, and commercially since the mid-20th century. In My Tropic Isle, Australian author and naturalist Edmund James Banfield tells how, in the early 20th century, a friend in Singapore sent him a durian seed, which he planted and cared for on his tropical island off the north coast of Queensland.
In 1949, the British botanist E. J. H. Corner published The Durian Theory, or the Origin of the Modern Tree. His theory was that endozoochory (the enticement of animals to transport seeds in their stomach) arose before any other method of seed dispersal, and that primitive ancestors of Durio species were the earliest practitioners of that dispersal method, in particular red durian (D. dulcis) exemplifying the primitive fruit of flowering plants. However, in more recent circumscriptions of Durioneae, the tribe into which Durio and its sister taxa fall, fleshy arils and spiny fruits are derived within the clade. Some genera possess these characters, but others don’t. The most recent molecular evidence (on which the most recent, well-supported circumscription of Durioneae is based) therefore refutes Corner’s Durian Theory.
Since the early 1990s, the domestic and international demand for durian in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region has increased significantly, partly due to the increasing affluence of Asia.
The History of Durian in Thailand
In June of 1662, Jacques de Bourges was startled to find that Ayutthaya was a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan city. He wrote, “There are few cities in the whole of the East where one can see so many different nationalities as in Siam, and more than twenty different languages are spoken there.”
Ayutthaya was a port city about 80 kilometers north of modern-day Bangkok and served as a meeting point for merchants and priests from Iran, China, Java, Malaysia and Japan. By 1630, the King of Thailand was of Chinese descent, had Japanese bodyguards and Dutch mercenary soldiers, and kept Iranian imams and French priests like de Bourges as advisors. Many visitors passed through and left accounts of tasting durian.
De Bourges wrote a long passage describing durian:
“This fruit is of the size and shape of an ordinary melon, the skin is thick and tough; it grows at the top of the tree trunk beneath its branches, and because it would be difficult to open it on account of its hard husk, when it is ripe, Nature causes it to open by itself at the bottom in three or four places, and one can finish off its opening with brute strength.
Inside this fruit are segments of a soft, delicate flesh enclosed within small compartments. The flesh is as white as snow, exceeds in delicacy of taste all our best European fruits, and none of ours can approach it. Each durian has five, six, seven or eight of these segments of white flesh, the shape of which is like a green almond, but four or five times bigger. What is extraordinary about this marvellous fruit is that its smell is most disagreeable and even, at first, unbearable when one distinguishes it, being similar to a rotten apple. This fruit is extremely hot, and Europeans who eat too much of it are obliged to moderate the ardour it causes by going incontinently to wash.”
As a durian history detective, there are two important details in this passage:
1) People were waiting until the durian was nearly cracking open on its own to eat it, rather than cutting the fruits early and consuming them at the firm éclair stage, as Thais do now, and
2) The durians had white flesh and up to 8 seeds, all signs of thurian baan, the uncultivated village durian. Today, most thurian baan still have white flesh, but most cultivated durians have yellow or dark golden flesh.
This means that, unless the King was eating a different durian than the commoners, the Thai durians we know today were developed after 1662.