A few weeks ago, something momentous happened at the World Durian Championship 2022: Malaysia Edition at the Bangi Golf Resort Durian Festival & Awards. After a panel of judges spent hours tasting all the durians at the competition, there was a final round of judging to determine the king of kings – basically the durian to trump all durians.
While the Musang King varietal seemed like a sure-fire winner, it was the cult favourite Black Thorn variant that took home the crown, sealing victory for 62-year-old Penang farmer Leow Cheok Kiang, who has spent decades cultivating and growing Black Thorn and is actually the person responsible for registering the Black Thorn clone in Malaysia.
In many ways, Black Thorn’s rise to the top has been a long time coming for devoted farmers like Leow, who have been slowly and steadily growing these prized durians for nearly 40 years and are finally reaping the rewards, after years of taking a backseat to the more commercially available Musang King.
So is Black Thorn finally having its moment in the sun? Oh yes, it is. And if the competition is any indication, the fruit’s lift-off is only just beginning.
Black Thorn in Malaysia
According to durian expert Lindsay Gasik, the Black Thorn mother tree in Malaysia originated near Sungai Bakap in Penang, grown from a seed brought back from Thailand by someone named Bagi Kau. Bagi Kau initially refused to propagate it and so there emerged a long waiting list of people desperate to try it.
Heng Mee Oo, 64, for instance is now the biggest producer of Black Thorn in Malaysia. But he waited two whole years to even try the fruit the first time, eventually getting his first taste nearly 25 years ago.
“I tried all sorts of durian but once I ate the Black Thorn, I fell in love. I told myself ‘This is the durian I want!’ So I decided to slowly plant it in stages, a few thousand trees a year. A few years back, I transformed my farm from a multi-clone to a single clone. So the whole farm is now Black Thorn,” he said when I interviewed him a few years ago after he won in the Black Thorn category at the inaugural World Durian Championship 2018.
Leow on the other hand, was the only lucky person who was actually offered the plant seedlings by his friend Bagi Kau. This helped him establish the first commercial Black Thorn farm, according to Gasik.
These days, Heng has surpassed Leow’s production capacity manifold and has focused his attentions on the export market. He now has about 6,000 Black Thorn trees in his 100-acre Kedah farm, and exports 90% of his produce overseas.
Award-winning Penang farmer Leow meanwhile has about 1,000 Black Thorn trees and has planted an additional 2,000 trees, which will start fruiting in a few years’ time. Leow has chosen to focus entirely on the Malaysian market as he is passionate about introducing Black Thorn to Malaysians and realises that there is far more demand for the fruit than there is supply – at least on the local front. Even though Leow has won multiple competitions in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, his durian has never seen the light of day outside of the country, which means it is limited to Malaysians only.
“Mr Leow is unable to export because he wants to focus on domestic demand. In fact, he continues to plant more Black Thorn because of the huge local demand. People queue up every day outside his store and often he runs out of durians and some customers leave without any fruits.
“He has told me that not having enough fruits to supply to customers makes him sad, so that is why he continues to plant Black Thorn trees and take care of his fruits, so that more Malaysians can enjoy it,” explains Pow Chiok, who is Leow’s good friend and spokesperson.
But growing Black Thorn is not without its challenges. According to both Heng as well as Leow, Black Thorn trees are particularly susceptible to wind damage as the branches are more fragile than many other durian trees and typically need to be secured with metal or bamboo poles in order to keep them tethered.
“Black Thorn is a very different species from other durians, so the care needed is very different. For example, the branches for this varietal are very brittle, and they keep breaking. So if there is very strong wind, the whole tree might fall!
“Also the trees need a lot of water – if it is short of water, the quality of the fruit is affected. Conversely, the yield is very sensitive to rain, so if there is more rain, there will be less yield. That’s why this year, production of Black Thorn in northern Malaysia was affected because of constant rain,” says Heng.
The quality of Black Thorn is also threatened if there are too many fruits on the trees. So farmers like Leow (who is very particular about the quality of his fruits) manually remove excess fruits from each tree.
“Mr Leow has 40-year-old Black Thorn trees and he only keeps 100 to 120 fruits per year from those trees, even if his total yield is 200 fruits. This is because he only maintains the fruits with grade A shapes, so he removes the odd ones because he wants to make sure the nutrients go to the good quality fruits. His main priority is keeping the fruits and ultimately, the trees – healthy.
“Unlike many other farmers, he only brings top quality fruits to sell and discards the rest. For other farmers, each kilo of fruit is money, but for Mr Leow, he is sincere about ensuring quality – that is the reason he keeps only the best and has won awards again and again,” explains Pow.
Demand is high
The unique characteristics of Black Thorn are what has made it leap to the top of the durian pack. The durian typically has a consistent yield in that all the chambers are always filled with fruit (unlike many other durians which produce empty sockets). The colour of the fruit is also specific to the varietal – a trademark burnished orange-gold or sunset hue.
Taste-wise, it truly packs a punch, with dramatic flavour profiles that range from a rich sweet creaminess that segues into a lightly nuanced bitterness and an almost caramel-esque aftertaste that lingers on the palate. Unlike other varietals, the fruit is not fibrous, which is what gives it a decadent, lush melt-in-the-mouth texture.
As Black Thorn trees typically start fruiting between three to four years after being planted, durian plantation consultant and collector Dr Abdul Aziz Zakaria says there is a huge chasm between mature Black Thorn trees like Leow’s 40-year-old variants and Heng’s decades-old trees as compared to newer fruits. Older trees tend to yield better quality fruits, which is why consumers trying newer variants might be underwhelmed by the final product.
“Ochee (another name for Black Thorn) in the market is rarely as good as Leow’s championship winning durian from his 40-year-old trees. That is exclusive and you cannot get the same quality from a very young Ochee tree. Also a young Black Thorn tree will not bear fruits that have a strong orange colour and the bitterness won’t be so apparent either.
“I have a compilation of Ochee fruit that I have tasted and the prize-winning one from Leow is the best, so I think it will take years to get that championship taste. So in my opinion, young Ochee is overpriced for the quality on offer and many people might end up being disappointed.
“This is where Black Thorn differs from Musang King, because with Musang King, you can get a consistent taste that is industry-standard, even from a younger tree,” says Aziz.
Regardless, prices for Black Thorn have shot up over the years and now range between 30% to 40% more than Musang King. Demand has also risen dramatically since 2018, when Black Thorn began gaining popularity in the market.
These days, the fruit is trending and as a consequence, demand has soared through the roof, says Eric Chan, one of the partners at Dulai Fruits, which owns farms and runs durian stalls like Durian Hill.
“Every year the request for Black Thorn is increasing, even though the price is so high. Musang King is still more commercially viable, but this is only because the price for Black Thorn is currently very high and supply is limited, so not many people even get to try it.
“In terms of the overseas market, there is also a demand for Black Thorn. A lot of China importers have heard of this fruit and everybody wants a taste, so starting from 2018, importers have been looking for this breed, so it is slowly gaining popularity internationally as well. I definitely think it is here to stay,” says Chan.
The future is black
The future of Black Thorn is looking nothing short of starry at the moment, especially as more and more farmers have now started growing the species, driven by the demand and high prices for the fruit.
In the local scene, demand still far outstrips supply, which is why it makes sense for farmers to plant this rarer category as opposed to the now-more-common (although still lucrative) Musang King.
“Now after so many years, the price of Black Thorn is high, so a lot of farmers are looking to plant it because there is also demand overseas. So I see that now there are more farmers that have started planting Black Thorn in Johor and Pahang so in three to five years’ time, there will be a lot more supply,” says Heng.
For older farmers like Leow and Heng – both of whom are in their sixties – having a succession plan is key to ensuring the continuity and legacy of Black Thorn in Malaysia.
Leow for instance has been grooming his late partner’s son Lee Kean Liang, 37, to take over the running of the farms.
“Lee has been involved in the farms for 12 years now. He works very closely with Mr Leow and of the four farms they co-own, Lee manages three himself,” explains Pow.
Heng meanwhile has a more ambitious, philanthropic plan to share his knowledge of growing prize-winning, export-ready Black Thorn durians to a wider farming community.
“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I conducted classes and workshops on grafting and taught people how to plant Black Thorn. So I think I will try to do this again maybe next year, as I am willing to teach interested farmers for a very small fee.
“Because we need more farmers to plant Black Thorn so that the country can supply vast quantities to meet the current and expected demand for the fruit. We need to make the market bigger so Malaysia can have a bigger market share. In order to do this, farmers need to know how to cultivate Black Thorn, so I want to contribute to this.
“I have 30 years of experience in durian cultivation, so I want to teach other farmers growing Black Thorn how to succeed, because this will be good for the country ultimately,” he says.