Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A mysterious furry fruit in PNG

On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG), ACIAR’s Forestry research manager Mr Tony Bartlett came across a very unusual fruit in the forest... What is it, and what research is ACIAR supporting related to it? Read on to find out!

What is this strange furry fruit?!

balsa fruiting body
The mysterious furry fruit

This rather interesting fruiting body belongs to the balsa tree, which is an introduced tree in Papua New Guinea. The fruit of balsa is a capsule, which resembles a strangely shaped cucumber. As it ripens, it looks more like a furry rabbit’s foot. The fruit contains many seeds with long hairs, which allow them to be dispersed great distances by the wind. The fibre from these capsules is sometimes used as stuffing for mattresses and cushions.

Balsa is a unique fast-growing tropical hardwood tree that has very lightweight and soft timber. Balsa wood has long been used in many commercial applications, such as model-building, packing and insulation, and nowadays is used as a major component in the blades of large wind turbines. In East New Britain in PNG, balsa is grown on a 5-6 year rotation by farmers and private companies. These balsa plantations are extremely productive compared to most other trees.

Balsa farmer Benedict Kelin
ACIAR’s research has found that a 6-year-old stand of balsa has a standing volume of about 800 cubic metres, with about half of this suitable for sale. This equates to an annual marketable amount of around 70 cubic metres per hectare, which is 2-4 times more than commercial forestry plantations in Australia.

During my visit I met with Benedict Kelin, a local farmer who is actively involved in the ACIAR balsa project and is a member of the project’s advisory committee. His farm is arranged so that he has an area of balsa to sell each year, generating about  60% of his household income. The remainder comes from selling cocoa and vegetables.

Our research has shown that there is great variability in the sellable volume extracted from individual trees, due to the poor form of many of the trees. Farmers are understandably quite concerned about the high level of wastage in many of the harvested trees.

The best way to address this issue is to improve the quality of the seed used. So, rather than using seed collected from current plantations – which are a mix of good and poor-quality trees – it is better to collect the seed from specially planted seed-production areas, in which all of the trees have been selected for their high growth rates and good form.
Project staff Braden Jenkin and Michael Blyth with
Malagat Boas from PNG Balsa, inspecting the seed-production
trial site near Kokopo

This is one of the major research activities of ACIAR’s forestry project Improving the PNG balsa value chain to enhance smallholder livelihoods, led by the Australian National University. The project team, which includes government, private sector and university partners, has established five balsa seed-production areas, which incorporate germplasm from about 100 of the best-quality balsa trees.

These trials are being monitored and the poorer balsa families and the poorer quality trees from good families will be removed as the plantations grow. Ultimately we expect the trees grown from seed collected from these trials to be of substantially better quality because both the parents are superior.

The project is progressing well, but the international market for PNG balsa products has declined significantly during the past two years and many international buyers only want to buy balsa timber that meets forest certification standards. This means that local demand for balsa logs from farmers in East New Britain has also declined.

Unfortunately, the forest certification requirements make things even more challenging for the smallholder growers, due to both the complicated processes and costs involved in achieving certification. A strategy will need to be developed to see if there are practical ways, such as a revised Balsa Code of Practice, that could facilitate smallholders’ access to forest certification.

By Tony Bartlett ACIAR’s Forestry research program manager

More information:
ACIAR project FST/2009/016 Improving the PNG balsa value chain to enhance smallholder livelihoods is led by the Australian National University

Collaborating partners:
University of Melbourne, Australia
University of New South Wales, Australia
Papua New Guinea University of Technology, Papua New Guinea 
The University of Natural Resources and Environment, Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea Forest Authority, Papua New Guinea
PNG Balsa Ltd, Papua New Guinea
Gunter Balsa, Papua New Guinea
Coconut Products Ltd, Papua New Guinea
Pacific Island Projects, Papua New Guinea

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