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The Botanical Ark Untaps Rainforest Food Secrets - ABC Rural 08.12.11 


Alan and Susie Carle have spent the past 30 years unlocking the nutritional secrets of the world's rainforest.

In 1978, the couple set off with their backpack to South and Central America.

Eleven months later they returned to Australia with a newborn baby and more than 80 exotic plant species.

It was to be the start of a life's work that continues today on the Carle's own patch of paradise in the beautiful Whyanbeel Valley in far north Queensland.

A former cow paddock, the property has been transformed to an oasis of tropical rainforest diversity - a place called The Botanical Ark. 

But did they really set out to change the world by discovering and preserving the earth's plant species?

According to Alan, the initial concept was much less ambitious than that.

"We started out just wanting to be able to feed ourselves," Alan explains. "But any good plan evolves with time and changes."

"The work we did sort of took a hold of us, it's forced us down a road and over the years we've realised that rainforests are disappearing at this alarming rate, and we wanted to do what we could to try to see what was in those rainforests which was valuable for us and maybe utilise that in trying to help preserve rainforests," he says.

So, after years of travelling the world looking at the different foods that people eat, Alan and Susie realised it was possible to sustain a complete, varied and healthy diet almost entirely from rainforest species. 

In fact, through his research, Alan has discovered 10,000 different plants with potential edible properties for humans, as well as many ethnobotanical species which are used by cultures around the world.

"I guess over the decades we've begun to appreciate just how much is out there in the rainforest in the way of food and how important it is to us," he says.

"Our little Botanical Ark has a sample of things which we can use to illustrate or to teach people how important these plants are. You don't really save plants in gardens or animals in zoos, you really have to save the eco system.

"But having said that, we grow a lot of really interesting and important plants which have economic values to you and I, which come from rainforests and if we can use those plants to illustrate to people that rainforest is actually more valuable standing than it is chopped down then maybe we can save some rainforests." 

For Susie, the past 30 years has also been a personal journey of discovery that has inspired a level of culinary awareness she never imagined possible.

Her experimentation has led to create self-styled chips made from breadfruit, curries from unripened jackfruit and an endless array of tart and sweet fruit juices, jams, cakes, salads, pies, puddings, ice creams and other unique dishes concocted from exotic ingredients most people would not even recognise, let alone prepare for dinner.

Alan is constantly "bringing something in from the garden" they have never encountered before, but Susie says there's nothing she won't try in her kitchen.

"I'm not chef or anything but I just play around and I say 'what does this remind me of that I know?'" Susie says.

"Breadfruit is a lot like potato when it's green so I treat it a bit like that and see what happens, when it's ripe it's totally different.

"It's not just the fresh, ripe fruit that's useful, it can also be the seeds, like jackfruit seeds are really nice when you cook them up and blend them with other things," Susie says.

"So there's a bit of sweet, a bit of savoury and a bit of experimenting."

Despite the idyllic rainforest surrounds, life at the Botanical Ark is extremely hectic. 

There's the constant cycle of propagating, potting and re-potting, planting and pruning to keep up with; a demanding schedule of meetings and public engagements as well as travelling the world to exchange information and to progress research and quarantine objectives.

Alan still has his eye on the bigger picture of how their acquired botanical knowledge and experience can be used to make a difference to humanity.

"One of the goals I've had for quite some time is to be able to use the resources that we've learned about and some of which we've collected to be able to integrate into sustainable agricultural systems around the world where people have poor diets and food shortages and so on," Alan says.

"Yet we have the plants, we have the resources which can fit in a particular gap time in their dietary program and enhance their health and nutrition and enrich their lives.

"If we can do that, I mean that's one of the fundamental stepping stones to improving a society and health and education.

"Once you get that healthier notion, maybe they don't have to have so many children and maybe there is less pressure on the planet."

He's accepted after 30 years The Botanical Ark is not a profitable venture but says that's not because of a lack of commercial potential.

In fact, the Carle's helped to pioneer the tropical exotic fruit industry in North Queensland and are responsible for introducing many fruits now considered 'household names' such as the durian and rambutan.

And according to Alan, there's plenty more where that came from. 

For example, the refreshing juice of the araca fruit as well as cupuassu - a relative of the cocoa plant which is the basis of an ice cream, fruit juice and sweets industry in Brazil.

"There are so many plants which have the potential for greater exploitation and commercialisation here. It's not going to be up to us to do it though because we just can't fit too many more plants in this place."

But even with room running out in the 'ark', Alan is still searching the world for plants and surprisingly, he's less selective than what he once might have been.

"One of the problems we face with commercialisation is we narrow the gene pool immensely and I think it's very important to have the most extensive gene pool as a resource for us in our biodiversity work for the future," he says.

"And so, it's not the major commercial types or the ones that might taste the best which I'm most interested in. While they might taste the best, we might need some of those other varieties and related species to enable that species to survive into the future."

So, what is the future? 

Susie says The Botanical Ark remains a labour of love which will be continued.

"It is rewarding. At the end of the day, we're our own boss and we live in a fantastic place. It's a good life. But I had never, in my wildest dreams imagined the amount of work it would be," she says.

"We'll keep doing it, for as long as we can I guess."