Two years ago we blogged about the Carunda berry (Carissa carandas, Apocynaceae). Recently documentary photographer Zachary Buttel from USA announced a wish to visit Dokmai Garden early in the morning. Of our 1000+ plant species this berry draw his attention. Being a rare example of a farang who speaks and reads Thai, Zak asked his Thai friends downtown Chiang Mai about this plant (the berry is called ‘manao mairu ho’ in Central Thai, ‘nam khi haet’ in Northern Thai language and ‘bok mao’ in Ketsanee’s home language Esan), but not surprisingly the berry was unknown to them. We have to thank old-timers like Dokmai Garden’s Nived Seehamongkol for adding this vanishing garden crop to the collection at all. Interestingly, Nived and Ketsanee said they never grew this plant, only collected in the forest. That makes me think they actually collected the native Carissa spinarum. Zak and I agreed that the berries of Carissa carandas were not that tasty when eaten fresh. Ketsanee and Nived only ate them fresh, they were never processed.
Zak wondered if we perhaps could make a jam as an experiment, and since I have never tasted anything from the otherwise poisonous Lilavadee family (Apocynaceae) I was as excited as Zak.
In the morning before opening hours we collected 1.5 kg of berries. We had to spend quite a while to clean them since a scale insect attack of a nearby Naringi crenulata tree (Rutaceae) resulted in a sooty fungal cover due to the scale insect excretions. The conclusion is to grow carunda in the full open sun away from plants which attract scale insects and aphids.
Once the harvest was cleaned, we added 3 dl of water and boiled it for ten minutes in a stainless steel pot. Then we added 9 dl of sugar and let the jam simmer for a while, regularly tasting the jam.
The colour was beautifully cherry-red, but to our surprise there was no fragrance. When we tasted the warm jam, it was fruity with a remarkable and unexpected flavour which reminded us of liver and rhubarb. Pectin was not added since the jam solidified nicely when cooling down. At first we thought the jam was just an interesting edible, feeling a bit annoyed about that ‘liver’ flavour, but when served on toast with (salty) melting butter it was delicious.
I think the ‘liver’ flavour is due to the white latex, because when chewing the peel the flavour got more pronounced. The latex is more pronounced in the younger red berries, while absent in the black and fully mature berries.
The origin of the berry is southern India and Bangladesh, but remarkably this obscure treat was already known to another Swede from my hometown Uppsala: Carl Linnaeus described this species already in 1767. However, in his days I am sure he had only access to a dry herbarium specimen, while here at Dokmai Garden we can eat from our collection of living tropical plants.
Precipitation report: during our day of cooking, July 24th, we had continuous rain which ceased next morning, in total 34 mm. That was a welcome addition to gardens and forests. Visiting Londonian university students did not mind the pouring rain, and we had a good time tasting the still warm jam and wander about in the garden discussing anything from ecology to design.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell