Myrica rubra, the Red Bayberry

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What I want to tell you a little bit about is the Red Bayberry, whose scientific name is Myrica rubra (Myricaceae).  They are in a family of their own.  There are other Myrica, like Myrica nana.  They are a northern hemisphere family and occur in North America and Asia.  Myrica rubra or red bayberry is the only really edible one and that is largely because it has been selected over time.

The other ones are mostly shrubby types like the Myrica in North America.  You probably wouldn’t recognize them as being in the same group.  Red Bayberry sticks out ‘like a sore thumb’ as being different from everything else in the group.  It comes under a whole lot of different names and some of them are ‘botanically confused’.  Sometimes, if packaged in tins, they are called Arbutus, which is actually the Irish Strawberry Tree.  Other times they are called Yang Mei, which is the conventional Chinese name for the fruit.  It is also called Chinese Bayberry, Waxberry and a few other things.

It is a fruit of China and a very attractive fruit.  We are trying to bring it into Queensland in a way that we can select for superior cultivars and release them.  We do not want to release inferior genotypes which might damage the market and, in particular, consumer perceptions at the outset.

Growing Condition Regarding soils, they like slightly acid 4 – 5.5pH.  They are growing very well on the red earth soil type at Maroochy Research Station and are virtually leaping out of the ground.  I think that is slightly acid, very well drained and very fertile.

It comes from China particularly in Zheijiang Province, grows on low mountains and likes high humidity around fruiting and it is a very attractive tree.  It has been grown over there and selected in China for many centuries.  The wild types are almost inedible so one has to be very careful when trying to bring a product like that into the marketplace.

This is the sort of climate that it grows in: minimum temperature about -4°C, maximum around 40°C; so it is very tolerant to a wide range of temperatures, but the average is a fairly pleasant 18°C.  It likes fairly high rainfall, particularly around fruit development.  If this fruit is not matured at high humidity it has a prickly mouth feel, so picking the best areas to grow it in Australia is a little bit tricky.

We have done some climate mapping and have worked out that areas that it should grow are around Nambour, in northern NSW and further up in Queensland, but very near the coast to maintain high relative humidity.  The trees grow very quickly and start bearing at 4 years old.  There is a juvenile period that you have to get through of 3 – 5 years. It takes fairly nasty soils even virtually growing in rock. If you peeled away the top of the root ball you can see these little nodules.  There is a Nitrogen fixing association and so, like a legume, this plant can fix its own nitrogen but instead of having a microbe called Rhizobium, it has a microbe called Frankia.

We were lucky to find it in Australia because we brought seed in and did not expect to have it, but Frankia is also a nitrogen fixing organism associated with casuarina.  Thus, we suspect that it has been infected by Casuarina frankia, but we have yet to confirm that the strain(s) we have in Australia is actually fixing nitrogen.  We will do this as soon as we can.

It is very vigorous growing.  They do tip pruning to try to get a nice form to the tree encouraging branching.  It looks a lot like a lychee orchard, the trees are about the same size as the lychee trees.  They need to be pruned to keep them down, they are very vigorous and they also need to be thinned to keep fruit numbers down as they bear very heavily.

Pests & Diseases
I think that lorikeets will attack them.  We had them under bird netting the first year that they fruited here and didn’t have any losses to birds.  We will probably keep them under bird netting as I suspect they will be attacked by birds.

We didn’t get any fruit fly in them that we know of.  There is a fruit fly exclusion netting type shade cloth that has been developed and is being tested at Maroochy.  Another good thing about that is it also maintains a high humidity within the structure than outside so this might initially give us a high value crop that can grow in that type of structure. Although they are pretty tough trees they do have a series of diseases and pests that attack them, a range of rots and a range of nematodes too, like Meloidogyne.

In Australia we do not know yet what will affect them.  The only problem we have had up at Maroochydore is a leaf curling caterpillar that folds the leaves around but they have been able to control that with a spray of insecticide.  We do not know if it gets fruit fly.  They have said fruit fly but they are talking about Drosophila which is just a vinegar fly so we do not know whether Queensland fruit fly will get stuck into them or not.  The fruit is a prohibited import because there is a published record in Indonesia of it being a carrier of fruit fly so we can’t bring the fruit into Australia.

Member:  Why don’t you irradiate it? Daryl:  It is too soft. Member:  They irradiate mangosteen. Daryl:  Yes, irradiation is a possibility, but the other thing is to get it in here you need to irradiate a fruit and demonstrate Probit 9 control, which is controlling 99.999+% of the fruit fly.  It is a massive undertaking.  It takes years to do it, so that work would have to be done in China.  It is not really practical at this stage.

We brought a small consignment of fruit into Brisbane airport in conjunction with AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service).  Thus, it came in under the supervision of AQIS.  We set up a small testing group of Australian consumers, basically a group of people from AQIS and a group of people I grabbed ‘off the street’.  They did taste testing in the secure facilities.  Immediately after that, all of the fruit were destroyed; so there was no risk of anything coming into Australia from the fruit.

But what it did show was that the small group that we tested (only ~17 people), ~15 out of the 17 people really liked the fruit.  So we think that if we can get it growing here, then there is going to be good acceptance.  I am now working with DPI.  The plants up at Maroochy that were mentioned comprise our first minor planting of 12 plants.  They will fruit for the second time this year, and at Hamilton in Brisbane we are setting up a trained taste panel to do some tasting on those fruit.

We know they are not optimum but what we want to do is to get feed back from the panel as to what we should be selecting for.  Also up at Maroochy Research Station we have ~200 seedlings that we expected to fruit this year, but they didn’t and we hope they will fruit next year.  Then we will apply what we learnt from the taste panel this year to putting in selection criteria for that population of 200 next year, hopefully.

The flowers are miniscule.  You can hardly see them on the inflorescences.  There are separate male and female flowers.  More often than not they are on different plants so it is a dioecious crop.  Occasionally you get a plant that has both male and female.

The 12 trees that we have up at Maroochy Research Station are ~50% male and 50% female.  In China you do not need many males as pollinators so they tell me.  I am no good at Chinese, so I can’t swear to it; but, you need about one pollinator per hectare, which is very low.  As the pollen is very tiny it is profusely shed and it is wind blown so it is possible.  We have had no problem with fruit set but our trees need to be thinned as they bear too heavily. 

The fruit has a seed, like the seed inside a cherry stone, very hard to get at ie a very hard testa, like a cherry stone.  Arranged around are all these papillae, little ‘fingers’ of flesh.  They are a little bit like vesicles in an orange fruit, except they have knobbly tops and in two months you end up usually with a deep red fruit.  It is very high in anthocyanin; therefore, it is a very good antioxidant.  People are very interested in it for its functional food properties as well.  There has been a lot of analysis of the fruit done in China and Japan and we will also be conducting antioxidant analysis on the fruit here in Australia this coming season.

Member: When do you pick it? Daryl: You pick it fully ripe.  It fruits in mid summer.  This is a problem with it.  It is very soft when it is ripe, just like a mulberry, for example.  So to move it around, you have to be very careful.  If you pick it earlier it will not ripen fully.  It will not ripen to full flavour so that is where the logistics become an issue.

It is all hand picked, but what they do is they shake the tree and let them fall to the ground with a lot of mulch under the tree.  So a lot of it is hand picked, but also a lot of it is picked up off the ground when they shake the tree.  Similar to mulberry.

I guess what we are thinking of here is if we can get it going is that you would be looking at something like a Tatura trellis type production system.  That is, train the tree in a V shape and collect fruit underneath, so there is minimum damage upon fruit fall or shaking based harvest to the fruit.  It is actually a very attractive tree, just like a lychee when it is developing.  So green to red ripening fruit – just like a Christmas tree – and then the bright to deep red fruit at harvest time.  I should also say that there are a whole range of cultivars that vary in colour from pure white through to almost black, so red or a deeper red is not the only colour, there is a range of pinks, and even some yellowish coloured ones which might have a very low concentration of anthocyanins.

Harvesting To give you some idea, it does bear heavy and the trees tend to fall over so in China they prop them up with bamboo poles to stop them from collapsing and damaging the branches.  Harvesting in China is by bamboo ladders.  They collect them into bins and take them back to the factory for processing and they pick up the ones that have fallen off the tree.  Labour is very cheap there.  It may be only costing around about $1-2 per day for labour. 

June is when it ripens in China so in Australia it is supposed to fruit in December.  What we find is that it actually fruits at the end of November, but possibly if we can produce it in different climates we can use a natural phytotronic effect on the eastern coast to get a series of production times; just like we do with Bowen Mangoes, which starts off in Darwin around October and ends up in Coffs Harbour in March at the latest – so we are looking to do that.

In China it is put into juice, it is frozen, carbonated drinks and spirits are made from it, however, it is mainly sold fresh.  In recent years production has been increasing exponentially, the reason being that now they have improved infrastructure for transport and can market this fruit more widely throughout China.

It is a very perishable fruit.  It is in the same bracket as strawberries, raspberries, loganberries or mulberries; very soft and so you need to handle it carefully, quickly and at low temperature.  They have selected superior cultivars, one is Biqi for example and they graft that superior cultivar onto seedling rootstocks in China.  They use more woody stock and scion materials than we typically use in Australia. They market them in plastic baskets, in gift wraps and in cartons – a whole range of things.  It comes in on the back of trucks which does a lot of damage.  We have done some studies as to where damage occurs and most of the damage occurring in China happens between the trees and when it gets back to the packing shed. Because they are using trucks without springs and using bamboo poles with baskets at the end – as they walk along it sort of wobbles and so the fruit gets jiggled around.  Back in the shed there is some pretty crude sorting (slide).  There are spaced bars and different sized fruit falls through at different positions, so they get some size grading done.

It is not a very good fruit to carry around because if you buy a basket it is about this deep (display) so the fruit down the bottom get crushed.  There are a bunch of shallow trays that they use and a colleague of mine from England is suggesting that in Australia we should try to pack them in an egg carton type arrangement.

At first when they come onto the market they will be hopefully be pretty high value because people have to put up a lot of money to establish an orchard and wait 2 or 3 years to reach bearing age.  So they are almost as big as lychees but unlike lychees you don’t have to peel them.  You just pop them in your mouth, suck off the flesh and spit out the seed – more like a cherry.

Trying to get the product into Australia is taking a great deal of time.  We are trying to do it properly so that everybody benefits – the industry benefits, the consumers benefit.  As you probably know, it is very hard to get a new crop adopted and get anyone to invest in bringing it over here.  I have been working on it for about 8 years now, probably longer, and I have worked over the years with a group of people in China (slide) and Australia.  Yueming Jiang, Li Jiangrong, (an Australian Chinese) Shiming Lui, Graham McGregor (who unfortunately passed away; but, he was the raspberry breeder in the Victorian Department of Agriculture), Garth Sanesky (who is up at the DPI at Nambour and is a plant breeder), Sherrie Wei (who is a marketing specialist based in Taiwan) and Stephanie Kirkhoff (will be doing the consumer taste testing. She is based at the DPI Hamilton Food Group).

In the recent years we have had financial support from RIRDC (Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation) to keep the project going.  We are working with ANFIC (Australian Nursery Fruit Improvement Company) – Gavin Porter is an old colleague of mine and he has put some money into this project and their member nursery in this part of the world is Birdwood Nursery up on the Sunshine Coast.
Recently we have been working with UniQuest which is a commercialization arm of the University of Queensland, and they have just put up $16,000 into the project to help us continue it on.  We are very grateful for all of that support. We also have an ice cream company called Lick Ice Cream interested in trying to make us some ice cream so if they do make some ice cream we will bring it along and ask you to taste it.

Questions Member:  What does it taste like? Sophia:  It’s sweet and sour. Daryl:  Which isn’t exactly a taste that Australian consumers know.  When you say it’s sweet and sour, you know what you mean by it; but, Australian consumers don’t know what sweet and sour is.  It is hard.  It is acid, but at the same time it is sweet.  It has a berry like quality, like mulberry.  When we did the taste testing here most of the taste testers said that it is most like mulberry.  Have you tasted it?  Sophia:  Yes, I have tasted the fresh fruit. Daryl:  Do you think it tasted like mulberry? Sophia: More like strawberry.

Daryl:  Most Chinese tend to prefer a much sweeter fruit, with low acid.

We have never lost a plant.  We have grown lots at Gatton.  We have neglected them.  We have kept them pot-bound for 6 years and have never lost a plant to disease.  We have lost them to other things eg. it fell over and never got watered.  We brought in seed from China to propagate.

Sheryl: Did you select the trees that the seed came off? Daryl:  It came from marketed fruit.  We did not select the trees, but it was allegedly Biqi fruit.  We know it was an elite variety. Sheryl: I have been told that they won’t let out their best varieties from China. Daryl:  No they won’t, not officially. Sheryl: How true to type from seed? Daryl:  Biqi is one of the best varieties but is not very true to type.  So that is why with the original 12 plants that we have, about half have fruited.  The present fruit quality is not something we would like to let out yet because that could damage their reputation.  People won’t like them as much.  They are still quite edible.  I like them, but the really wild fruit in China is like eating turpentine. Member: So are they grafted in China?  Or are they a lot of seedlings? Daryl:  Nowadays, mostly grafted.  Traditionally they were mostly seed.  In the past a Chinese family would be affluent by having 10 of these trees.  They have been highly prized. Sheryl: So when does your project finish?  What is your timeframe? Daryl: The first RIRDC project finishes next year, but my project will not finish until I am dishing out bayberries.  It has taken this long to get this far and we want to see it right the way through. Sheryl: What plans do you have for marketing?  Are we going to be able to get access to it? Daryl:  Our intent is to have a line for home use. Member: Bisexual would be nice. Daryl:  Well, that too.  We said before we could always do double grafting as well. Member: You could do that. Daryl:  We have yet to do the fruit counts.  We don’t have money for staff on this, we just have money to rent the land from the DPI to grow them. Member:  Want some volunteers? Daryl:  Well, we might. I will ask Garth.  Because we would like to know about fruit set. Member:  If you really needed more people to look after them, propagate some of the seedlings, I am sure members here would be willing to do so. Daryl:  We don’t with Maroochy because it is government but with Birdwood Nursery we have asked them to sign a material transfer agreement.  We have no trouble growing them from cuttings in our nursery. Member:  Do you think that there is any chance that we could taste them at some stage or there won’t be enough?  What do you do with them all? Daryl:  We don’t know yet.  Stephanie from the DPI is corresponding with Garth to work out if she can get enough fruit for the taste panel.  She has 4 or 6 tastings and we don’t know how well they will bear.  Garth said it is a good flowering season.  It’s compact. The reason why we want to try ice cream is because some of the bush food people tried making ice cream with their lines. Member:  How long does it take to get to maximum production? Daryl:  Within 8 years, I am told in China.  You have to thin them.  About the same as lychee trees.  We have the devil’s job getting the seeds to germinate.  It took me 3 years to get a batch of 200 of them to germinate.  In the end I don’t know what happened. I tried stratification.  I tried acid treatments.  I tried cracking them.  Tried heat. Sheryl:  Smoke? Daryl:  No, but it won’t be smoke as they haven’t evolved in that kind of climate.  Someone said heat or dry.  In the ground I think it gets dry and wet, dry and wet and they slowly crack.  A bit like a macadamia, eventually they get to germinate. Member:  How big is the seed and stone? Daryl:  The seed is tiny – probably no bigger than an apple seed.  The stone is like a cherry.  So it is a really thick exocarp around it and every time I tried to crack it in a vice or with a hammer, I would end up fracturing the testa – that is, you fracture the seed inside as well.  In China they dry them. Member:  Can you buy those dried products here now? Member:  Yes, in Melbourne I have seen some and Chinese friends here got some in Sunnybank. Member: Pesticides? Daryl:  In China they grow them organically.  It is one of the few things that is grown totally organically and the government have actually got an organic certification scheme in place for them because they are very popular in Japan.  The Japanese are very discerning consumers.  They do not need to treat them with anything.  It is amazing.  So in spite of having pests and diseases on them they are not catastrophic or anything like that.  Very resilient which is another reason why we would like to put it out for home gardens because we think as a tree it will be pretty maintenance free.  If fruit fly gets into stuck into it, we might not get any fruit. Sheryl:  So besides the planting at Nambour have you any other plots around? Daryl:  I have a small planting at Gatton which is for stock plants.  We have two trial plots in Victoria where I started off.  One is in the Dandenongs and one is in Tatura.  Actually the trees are going well, but they have not fruited yet and they have been neglected since my colleague passed away.  I went down there last year and they were about this high.  One is on a strawberry grower’s property under a material transfer agreement and the other one is with the DPI Victoria station at Tatura. Sheryl: A woman sent some seeds up to George but they are not up yet. Daryl:  Just be patient.

Member:  I had those in pots several years before they went out, but they started to bear within the second year of planting out at Maroochy.  They are probably 5 or 6 years old.  Which made us think, these guys must be fixing nitrogen.  They were greener than the mangoes nearby, so then we went scrubbing around and found lots of mycorrhiza in the mulch as well intimately associated with the roots and then also these nodules.   We hit every second tree with Cultar.  That really slowed them down.  They did not get the shoot extension and none of those trees set fruit in the first year.  They had fruit buds, but their development was so arrested.

Compiled by Barbara O’Connor