Unearthing the breathtaking beauty of Tenom | Daily Express Online

THIS special report focuses on the work of retired local researcher on rare tropical fruit trees, Willian Wong.

Recently William exposed the amazing diversity of wild fruits in Sabah, which we published two Sundays ago in our special feature with a glut of photos.

A reader told us that it was “a beautiful report”.

But to discover this astonishing diversity, William practically became a traveling seeker – traveling everywhere, to be there in the most remote, isolated, perhaps most overlooked places in Sabah to unearth the hidden treasures to open our eyes.


A big challenge is the enormous vertical height of the amazing scarlet wild durian – like the Tenom beauty!

Yes, its fruit drops when ripe, but what William wanted was to reach its high bud at crown level for grafting to propagate exact copies of this top-notch durian.

William says it: “Perhaps the hardest part will be collecting wildlife, mainly because the trees are old, very tall and therefore the access which, for collecting wood or fruit samples, usually means climb those big trees.”

A natural hybrid

Tenom beauty is a natural hybrid between Durian merah (Durio greveolens) and Durian putih (Durio zebithinus).

William’s discovery of this stunner dates back to the late 1980s or early 90s.

“A man named Fred Chu found the mother tree on a hill behind a Rubber Fund Board scheme on the way to Lagud Sebrang Agricultural Park, Tenom,” he recalls.

“The area was originally part of a forest cleared for the Rubber Fund Board project.

“Chu asked us at the Lagud Sebrang Agricultural Research Station to help collect the grafts for cloning.”

“Tony Lamb (now Datuk) and I went to examine it,” William recalled.

Tenom’s beauty durian fruit, oval in shape and spiky (left). A stunner – the scarlet-colored flesh of beauty Tenom (right).

The 30 m (100 ft) Tenom Beauty Mother Tree discovered by Fred Chu and studied by William Wong and Tony Lamb.

Big shaft and big climbs for the buds

“What we saw was a huge tree, probably 50 years old, towering 30 meters (100 feet) into the sky.”

“It was impossible to get to it but luckily we had some very good tree climbers who climbed and harvested the scions which could be grafted onto other durians, for example, and propagate the exact characteristics of the mother tree”, noted William.

“If you use seeds, you can get variations,” he zealously explained to the bud hunt.

“Bud wood harvested, grafting was done by buds from Tenom Research Station for Germplasm Conservation, which helped people like Fred Chu,” he said.

“We then decided to call it Tenom Beauty when we realized its market potential as a


“It’s all a team effort of different people but coordinated by the Lagud Sebrang and Ulu Dusun research station near Sandakan.

The surprise – Durian merah does not fall off or smell

But many durian lovers may not be aware of the following surprise:

“Wild durian merah doesn’t smell at all,” William noted.


“Also, they don’t automatically fall to the ground when ripening, so people have to climb to catch them.

“But Tenom’s beauty is different – it smells like typical durian and falls off as it ripens.”

stuck in the mud

The nature of his research to unearth Sabah’s astonishing diversity of wild fruits meant he had to travel to the most remote villages or venture deep into the forest, William said.

“Here, accessibility is often extremely difficult, the roads are not paved and even your 4×4 you risk getting stuck in the mud,” he recalls.

“Boat trips were quite common on the Kinabatangan where there is a lot of Durian merah,” William noted.

And, yes, the pudding test is good in eating it.

Tempoyak – a Durian merah delicacy

“You see, Durian merah does not drop like regular putih Durian when ripe, so local villagers in Kinabatangan have to climb trees to harvest them.”

“Here’s what they do with them – turn them into a local specialty called tempoyak.”

“While staying with the villagers, my staff and I really enjoyed their scarlet tempoyok cooked with rice and freshwater fish,” William recalls.

Entomologist turned tropical fruit researcher

Incidentally, William was one of my brilliant ex-students at SM La Salle, Tanjung Aru.

After La Salle, he went to the UK and trained as an entomologist, but did an MSc in crop protection, which refined him with a foundation in plant science, in addition to a full course on insects.

Upon his return, he joined the Ministry of Agriculture in 1983 as a research officer on tropical fruit tree research, stationed at Ulu Dusun Agricultural Research Station, 45 km from Sandakan.

This appointment with specifications for working on fruit trees, including their wild relatives, explains what it has become.

“As a research officer on tropical fruit research, I examined aspects of crop agronomy, pests and diseases of fruit trees, collection and conservation of germplasm (material germ cell genetics), taxonomy, development of new varieties through breeding, propagation of planting foundation materials and disseminating these new varieties to growers.

“I was also involved in disseminating information to producers and the public, writing research papers, articles and presenting research breakthroughs that were part of every research officer like me,” explained William .

The rare duo

“But, of course, when I started I was very inexperienced and my mentor was none other than Datuk Tony Lamb, Principal Fruit Research Office and Officer in Charge of the Agricultural Research Station, Lagud Sebrang, who taught me a lot,” acknowledged Guillaume.

“As I explored, it became my passion.”

One can salute the astonishing diversity of the wild fruits of Sabah, the paradox is that William and Tony Lamb turned out to be the only duo these days in this business.


William Wong

Fred Chu (left) and his friends at the foot of the 30m Tenom Beauty Mother Tree he discovered.

William (left) and Datuk Tony Lamb review research notes at a camp deep in the forest.

“As the only two tropical fruit research officers in Sabah (me and Tony), we had to deal with both cultivated and wild fruit trees,” William said.

“When I delved into this topic, what struck me was the sheer diversity – Borneo has 10,000 to 15,000 species of seed plants while Sabah has about 8,000, including fruit species. On durian alone, Borneo has 25 species, Sabah has 13, and more than 10 are edible.

Sabah in danger of losing its wild fruits?

But is Sabah in danger of losing its wild fruits? No and yes.

“No, in Ulu Dusun where we had a 115ha forest reserve for station water catchment, which was selectively logged years ago and the regrowth is excellent,” William noted.

“Selective logging meant that many fruit trees were left standing while only valuable Dipterocarp timber species were taken, although sometimes large durians were taken, but at Ulu Dusun we are protecting some of its diversity .

“Elsewhere, however, the challenge is real,” William said.

“I remember in my youth as a research officer in Ulu Dusun, I collected durians in the areas around Kampung Boutu, Telupid, Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu on the east coast and on the west coast, places like Ligkungan, Lumadan, Beaufort, Weston, Pantai Manis, Sipitang, the trees were huge and very tall.

“The challenges here weren’t so much physical, but things like road alignment, road widening, new land use and development, it’s very sad to see those trees are gone. .

“For example, in Lingkungan, I once picked up the local Tembaga durian from a mother tree, but now the area is gone, you can’t see it.”

“Similarly, after Tepulid (from Sandakan), just before Kg Boutu, all the beautiful giants are gone forever!

“The biggest challenge is the changing landscape due to cash crops and urban development and it is very sad to see our precious wild fruit genetic resources and diversity being destroyed to the detriment of modern development, but it is a fact “William concluded.

River trip by canoe.

Land Rover stuck in deep mud – one of the sticky challenges.

William’s camp in the jungle – the bare minimum.

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