Unearthing stunning Tenom beauty
Published on: Sunday, May 22, 2022
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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One of the big wild fruit research challenges – climbing soaring trees for budwood (left). A very skilful climber coming down with precious budwood of the Tenom beauty.
THIS special report is about the work of a retired rare local Tropical Fruit Tree researcher, Willian Wong.

Recently, William exposed the astounding diversity of Sabah’s wild fruits, which we published two sundays ago in our Special Report with a glut of pictures.        

One reader told us it was “a beautiful report”.

But to uncover that astonishing diversity, William became practically a roving researcher – travelling everywhere, to be there in the most remote, most secluded, maybe most disregarded places of Sabah to unearth the hidden treasures to open our eyes.  

One big challenge is the enormous vertical height of the stunning scarlet wild durian – like the Tenom beauty!

Yes, its fruits drop upon ripening but what William wanted was to reach its budwood located high at the crown for grafting to propagate exact copies of this top dog durian. 

William says it: “Perhaps the most challenging is going to collect wild species mainly because the trees are old, very tall and so access that for budwood or fruit sample collection usually means climbing up these tall trees.”  

A natural hybrid 

The Tenom beauty is a natural hybrid between Durian merah (Durio greveolens) and Durian putih (Durio zebithinus).        

William’s discovery of this stunner goes back to the late 1980s or early 90s.

“One named Fred Chu found the mother tree on hill behind a Rubber Fund Board scheme located on the way to Lagud Sebrang Agriculture Park, Tenom,” he recalled.

“The area was originally part of a forest cleared for the Rubber Fund Board scheme.

“Chu asked us in the Agriculture Research Station at the Lagud Sebrang to help collect the budwood for cloning.”  

“Senior Fruit Research Officer cum Officer-in-charge of the Lagud Research Station, Tony Lamb (now Datuk) and I went to look at it,” William recalled.

The spiky oval-shaped Tenom beauty durian fruit (left). A stunner – the scarlet colour flesh of the Tenom beauty (right).   

The 30m (100ft) Tenom beauty mother tree discovered by Fred Chu and studied by William Wong and Tony Lamb. 

Huge tree and big climbs for budwood

“What we saw was a huge, probably a 50-year old tree soaring 30-metre (100ft) straight up the sky.”

“Accessing it was impossible but fortunately we had a few very good tree climbers who went up and harvested the budwood which could be grafted to other durian trees, for example, and propagate the exact characteristics of the mother tree,” William noted.

“If you use seeds, you may get variations,” he explained zealous the budwood chase.           

“Budwood harvested, the grafting was done by budders from Tenom Research Station for germplasm conservation which helped people like Fred Chu,” he said.  

“We subsequently decided to name it Tenom Beauty when we realised its potential for commercialisation as a 


“It’s all a teamwork of the various people but coordinated by the Research Station in Lagud Sebrang and in Ulu Dusun, near Sandakan.  

The surprise – Durian merah don’t drop and don’t smell  

But many durian lovers may not be aware of the following surprise: 

“Wild durian merah don’t smell at all,” William noted.  

“They also don’t drop to the ground automatically upon ripening so people have to climb to get them.

“But Tenom beauty is different – it smells like the typical durian and falls on ripening.”      

Stuck in the mud 

The nature of his research to unearth Sabah’s astounding diversity of wild fruits meant he must travel to the most remote villages or venture deep into the forest, William said. 

“Here, accessibility is often extremely difficult, roads are not bituminised and even your 4-WD you could get stuck in the mud,” he recalled.

“Boat trips were quite common on the Kinabatangan where there are lots of Durian merah,” William noted.

And, yes, the test of the pudding is indeed in the eating.

Tempoyak – a Durian merah delicacy 

“You see, Durian merah don’t drop like the ordinary Durian putih when ripened, so local Kinabatangan villagers need to climb the trees to harvest them.”

“Here’s what they do with them – turn them into a local delicacy called tempoyak.”

“Staying with the villagers, my staff and I really enjoyed their cooked scarlet tempoyok with rice and fresh water fish,” William recalled.


Entomolgist turned tropical fruit researcher

Incidentally, William was one of my bright ex-students at SM La Salle, Tanjung Aru. 

After La Salle, he went to the UK and trained as an entomologist but did a Masters of Science in Crop Protection, which honed him with basics in plant science, on top of a full course on insects.

On return, he joined the Department of Agriculture in 1983 as a Research Officer on Tropical Fruit Tree Research, stationed at is Ulu Dusun Agriculture Research Station, 45km from Sandakan.

This appointment with a job specification to work on fruit trees, including their wild relatives, explains what he became. 

“As a Research Officer on Tropical Fruits Research, I looked into the aspects of crop agronomy, pest and diseases of fruit trees, germplasm (genetic materials of germ cells) collection and curation, taxonomy, developing new varieties through selection, propagation of foundation plantation materials and release these new varieties to growers.

“I was also involved in information dissemination to the growers and the public, writing research papers, articles and presentation of research breakthrough which was a part of every Research Officer like me,” William elaborated.   

The rare duo

“But, of course, when I first started, I was very inexperienced and my mentor was none other than Datuk Tony Lamb, Senior Fruit Research Office cum Officer-in-charge of Agriculture Research Station, Lagud Sebrang, who taught me a lot,” William acknowledged.

“As I explored more, it became my passion.”

One may hail the astounding diversity of Sabah’s wild fruits, the paradox is William and Tony Lamb turned out to be the only duo those days in this endeavour.

William Wong

Fred Chu (left) and friends at the base of the 30m Tenom beauty mother tree he discovered. 

William (left) and Datuk Tony Lamb going over research notes in a camp deep in the forest. 

“As the only two Research Officers on tropical fruits of Sabah (myself and Tony) we had to deal with both cultivated and wild fruit trees,” William said.

“When I went deep into this subject, what hit me was the sheer diversity – Borneo has 10,000 to 15,000 species of seed plants while Sabah has some 8,000 including fruit species. On durian alone, Borneo has 25 species, Sabah has 13 and over 10 are edible.” 

Sabah in danger of losing its wild fruits? 

But is Sabah in danger of losing its wild fruits? No and yes.

“No, at Ulu Dusun where we had a 115ha forest reserve meant for the station’s water catchment, which was selectively logged years ago and the regrowth is excellent,” William noted.

“Being selectively logged meant that many of the fruit trees were left standing while only valuable Dipterocarp timber species were taken, although sometimes large durian trees were taken but in Ulu Dusun, we are protecting a part of its diversity.

“Elsewhere, however, the challenge is real,” William said.

“I remember in my younger days as a Research Officer in Ulu Dusun, I collected durians in the areas around Kampung Boutu, Telupid, Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu in the East Coast and in the West Coast, places like Ligkungan, Lumadan, Beaufort, Weston, Pantai Manis, Sipitang, the trees were huge and very tall. 

“Here the challenges were not so much physical but things like road alignment, road widening, new land use and development, it is very sad to see that these trees are no more standing there.

“For example, in Lingkungan, I once collected the local durian Tembaga from a mother tree but now, the area is gone, no more to be seen.”

“Similarly, after Tepulid (from Sandakan), just before Kg Boutu, all the beautiful giants are gone for ever!          

“The greatest challenge is the changing landscape due to commercial crops and urban development and this is a very sad thing to see our precious wild fruit germplasm resources and diversity being destroyed at the expense of modern development but it is a fact,” William concluded.

River trip in dug out canoe. 

Land Rover stuck in deep mud – one of the sticky challenges. 


William’s camp in the jungle – bare minimum. 


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December 20, 2014