Down from the Mountains

Jelly Figs' Journey to the Lowlands

2020 / February

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

Who loves Taiwan the best? Farmers who cultivate jelly figs and researchers who study fig reproduction will all reply: “The jelly-fig wasp!” The fig wasp that pollinates the jelly fig can only survive and reproduce in Taiwan, giving Taiwan a unique product—the jelly fig, from which we make aiyu jelly.

The wild jelly fig (Ficus awkeotsang) is a vine that grows in the mountains and climbs up tree trunks. Like most fig species, it lives in symbiosis with its own variety of fig wasp, which acts as its pollinator. Wild jelly-fig vines bear their best fruit high in the treetops, so that harvesting them is fraught with danger. But the Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station has developed two new lowland jelly-fig cultivars—Miaoli No. 1 and Miaoli No. 2—which are high-yielding and easier to harvest. Researchers have also discovered that jelly-­fig embryo cells contain efficacious skin lightening agents, and they are developing cosmetic products based on these substances, thus raising the value of the humble jelly fig.

In the unremarkable-looking plant nursery, which is not open to the public, the greenhouse is pierced by warm sunshine. An automatic sprinkler system is watering the green seedlings. This is a germplasm bank containing 115 varieties of jelly fig, collected over the last 20 years from mountain forests and countryside all over Taiwan by the Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station (MDARES).

Engineer Liu Mao-jung, who has worked at MDARES for 30 years, rushes off to anyplace where he hears there is an unusual jelly-fig vine to collect cuttings from. For example, the germplasm bank includes plants propagated from a vine said to be 100 years old, growing on a rocky cliff at Caoling in Yunlin County. Liu recounts: “We were guided to the location by a family that has been harvesting jelly figs for three generations. The old vine was still fruiting heavily, and its stem alone was the thickness of a human arm.” However, after the cuttings were propagated, the resulting seedlings could not adapt to the lowlands climate and have not produced much fruit.

The jelly-fig germplasm bank has a wide collection of jelly-fig varieties, each with its own strengths. But none compares with the Miaoli No. 1 and No. 2 varieties developed by MDARES in terms of yield, adaptability to the climates of northern, central and southern Taiwan, or pectin content.

Breaking the climbing habit

MDARES was led into studying the cultivation of jelly figs by the jelly-fig wasp. MDARES was previously the “Sericulture and Apiculture Experiment Station,” where research was done on bees and on other insect pollinators including fig wasps. As part of their study of the wasps, the team under the station’s then deputy director, Wu Dengzhen, also began researching their host plant, the jelly fig.

In order to avoid the danger of harvesting wild jelly figs, which involves climbing high into the canopies of host trees, and to produce high-yielding varieties, MDARES selected superior strains from its germplasm bank and conducted asexual domestication. They bred Miaoli No. 1 in 2012 and No. 2 in 2013. These are jelly-fig cultivars that grow rapidly in the lowlands, and produce large quantities of fruit with high pectin content.

For both the pest-resistant Miaoli No. 1 and the early-­ripening No. 2, concrete posts about three meters tall are provided for the jelly-fig vines to climb. Harvesters can simply use the telescopic cutters used for harvesting betelnuts and don’t even need ladders to pick the jelly figs, making for easy harvesting.

MDARES offers technology transfers of Miaoli No. 1 and No. 2 in complete packages costing NT$400,000, including the supply of 1000 jelly fig seedlings, guidance in crop management techniques, and assistance in pollination by fig wasps. However, this does not include the costs of NT$1000 per concrete post. Add the fact that it takes at least three years from the seedling cultivation stage to the first harvest, and up to five years to achieve stable production, and you can see why many farmers shy away.

Returning to the old family land

Frank Fan, owner of the Fan Family Jelly-Fig Orchard in Hualien County’s Yuli Township, has a discerning eye for opportunity. In 2013, when he heard that MDARES was offering technology transfers for Miaoli No. 1, he immediately signed a contract with them. He became the first farmer to undertake this technology transfer, and after five years of effort he has become the best spokes­person for Miaoli No. 1.

Fan has searched far and wide for challengers, and often pits his jelly figs in head-to-head comparisons with those from high-mountain wild harvesters or lowlands growers. He says, “Miaoli No. 1 can produce two harvests a year, and thus far I’ve rarely met its match in terms of production volume or pectin content.”

Fan, who was sent to work in mainland China for over a decade in his former career, inherited a long-­neglected plot of land in Yuli from his parents. In 2005 he contracted someone to plant cinnamon trees on this land, and they grew successfully, but Fan ran into difficulties finding sales channels. “According to the regulations governing traditional Chinese medicine, dried and processed cinnamon is a Chinese medicinal material, and can only be sold at traditional Chinese pharmacies. But if you sell fresh cinnamon to middlemen, the price is too low to recoup your costs.” Fan, who heads a production and marketing group for special crops in Yuli, had thought about growing oilseed camellia, but the Chinese province of Guangxi grows vast amounts of this crop, and Fan feared he wouldn’t be able to compete against low-price dumping from the mainland. His only option was a plant unique to Taiwan: the jelly fig.

After five years spent on organic conversion of the land, along with overcoming disease and insect pests, coping with climate change, adjusting cultivation methods and harvesting times, and especially preparing an environment conducive to the symbiosis between the fig wasps and the jelly-fig vines, today Fan has an ecologic­ally flourishing organic farm producing plump, firm jelly figs with abundant pectin content.

Fan says: “The jelly fig is a unique treasure of Taiwan. My dream is to sell Taiwanese jelly figs around the world, just like New Zealand does with kiwifruit.”

The jelly-fig wasp: Only in Taiwan

In mentioning “unique to Taiwan,” Fan has put his finger on an important point: The jelly fig grows only in Taiwan, and the reason for that lies with the jelly-fig wasp.

MDARES associate researcher Lin Meng-jin notes that “the reproduction of jelly-fig vines is completely dependent on pollination by jelly-fig wasps [Wiebesia awkeotsang], which are only three millimeters in length and do not sting people. After the jelly-fig fruits form, a small fissure of 3 mm automatically opens at the outer end of the fruit, and the fruit releases a special scent that attracts fig wasps to enter.” The symbiotic relationship between the jelly-fig vine and its fig wasp demonstrates the wonder and mystery of nature.

As long as 20 years ago, farmers from Taiwan came up with the idea of planting jelly-fig vines in mainland China and Southeast Asia, and even transported jelly-­fig wasps from Taiwan to these places. But the wasps could not acclimatize themselves to local conditions, were unable to achieve their mission of pollinating the jelly figs, and died of disease.

Lin Meng-jin explains that there is no technology anywhere in the world for raising fig wasps by artificial reproduction. In mainland China there is a fig that is closely related to the jelly fig, known as the creeping fig (Ficus pumila), but it is far inferior to the jelly fig in terms of pectin content. Some experts have tried to use Wie­besia pumilae, the wasp for the creeping fig, in place of Wieb­esia awkeotsang, the wasp for the Taiwanese jelly fig. But while the two wasps are close cousins, because their populations have developed separate identities over the course of evolution, the creeping-­fig wasp can only penetrate creeping-fig fruits, and efforts to use it to pollinate Taiwanese jelly figs have ended in failure.

In recent years, mainland China has succeeded in replicating various Taiwanese agricultural crops, such as atemoya, bananas, and Taiwanese Yuhebao (“jade purse”) lychees. But they have been unable to grow the jelly fig, which can be seen as a gift bestowed specifically on Taiwan by nature.

To strengthen the jelly-fig industry, MDARES has selected specific varieties for research on substances extracted from the fruit. It has discovered that extracts taken from jelly-fig embryo cells can suppress melanin production and boost collagen production. Cellular and animal testing in collaboration with China Medical University has confirmed their skin-lightening and skin-­restorative properties, and there are no technical obstacles to their being developed into skin-lightening cosmetics.

MDARES researcher Lu Mei-chun says that normally about 200 milliliters of aiyu jelly can be made with the pectin squeezed out of one jelly fig by the traditional method of kneading by hand. But through extraction using biotechnology, one jelly fig can be turned into 500 facial treatment masks or 400 bottles of jelly-fig essence. Currently MDARES is seeking out business partners for technology transfer. If new products can be developed, this will increase incentives for farmers to plant jelly figs, and give rise to uniquely Taiwanese beauty products!

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