by Greg Calvert
If ever there was a more maligned and misunderstood tree than the Cheese Fruit, I have yet to come across it. Cheese Fruit is an attractive shade tree with large glossy leaves and is well suited to the Townsville environment. It is found in coastal Queensland, Northern Territory and extends through to Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and India. Perhaps its other common names give some hint as to why it is not more popular in horticulture: "Rotten Cheese Fruit" or "Vomit Fruit". There can be no doubt that the odour of the fruit is pretty unpleasant.
The fruit is actually a compound structure which is particularly evident when you see it flowering. Each individual segment of the fruit has its own small white flower. The fruit are a lumpy warty mass, green initially and then turning a translucent green-white when fully ripe.
It is at this stage that the fruit small particularly strong. The reason for the strong smell is to attract Fruit Bats to disperse the fruit. Along the windswept beach fronts in which it grows, a very strong scent is needed to attract the attention of the bats. One critic has described the smell as being reminiscent of a strong Roquefort cheese after soaking in a urinal.
Not surprisingly, the smell generally discourages most people from sampling the perfectly edible fruit. Since the senses of smell and taste are closely linked in the mind, smelling the fruit first actually makes the fruit taste worse. The best thing to do is to just hold your nose and take a big bite! The taste is actually something like a strong blue-veined cheese mixed with hot mustard. I am continually amazed at the number of people who actually like the fruit and I have had many requests for seeds and plants. The last time I was in Darwin, I saw advertised a salad dressing made by blending Cheese Fruit and Macadamia Nuts. It was selling like hot cakes to the tourists!
The fruit is high in vitamin C, but quite average in most other nutrients and minerals. Judging by the number of medicinal uses, I am sure that the fruit actually contains pharmaceutical properties. One whole fruit, eaten raw, is taken for the common cold, influenza, diarrhoea, asthma, coughs and sore throats. Many times I have heard that this brings almost miraculous cure and have tried it out on a few willing scapegoats with nothing but 100% success!
In the Tosses Strait, juice from the fruit is mixed with coconut milk or water and given to patients as an effective cure for the painful disease Ciguatera. The fruit may also be taken as a contraceptive (don’t kiss me after you’ve eaten that horrid thing!) or applied externally to sores and wounds. Green fruit may be smashed up and eaten as a green vegetable. One Papuan woman explained to me that fruit are also used as shampoo and she assured me they make your hair quite soft and shiny. Keep one handy in the shower cubicle next time.
If you dislike the fruit, then young leaves are also edible, either raw or cooked. In India, leaves are also applied externally to wounds and ulcers. In Vietnam, fruit are taken to relieve painful urination by apparently clearing obstructions from the urinary tract and are also taken to promote menstrual flow. Some research has been carried out into the medicinal value of Cheese Fruit and there is now a commercial drug based on the roots and trunk of Morinda, which is used to treat high blood pressure.
Other obscure uses include the extraction of a yellow dye for dying dilly bags. It is one of the best natural dyes to be found in North Queensland. In the Northern Territory, it is regarded as a calendar plant. The timing of fruit ripening and dropping from the tree apparently coincides with the end of the cold dry season and the beginning of the new hot and dry season. This doesn’t work well in the Townsville area, since I have seen trees fruiting all year round.
Let’s drop the name "Rotten Cheese Fruit" and use its other complimentary common name: "Great Morinda".