Rubber tree

Once the tree is tapped, the latex oozes out and drips slowly into the pot below.

Rubbery stuff

I suppose I’ll grow up some day. Maybe. Actually, I don’t really want to – somehow the idea of spending the rest of my days on the planet behaving like an adult is a somewhat bleak thought.

I still find the most childish of things highly amusing. If you stuck a copy of The Beano in front of me now, I’d read it cover to cover. It would need to be an issue from the seventies of course; I would hazard a guess that a current version wouldn’t have an ugly kid called Plug, lad called Dennis who gets slippered by his dad every week, or a naughty young girl by the name of Minnie the Minx.

As I was growing up, my parents would constantly plead with me to “grow up”. As I became more advanced in years, I came to realize that was one of the daftest pieces of advice that anyone could dish out, in reality. People who genuinely have “grown up” are the type you get cornered with at parties; the sort that are convinced that you will share their passion for eleventh century Castilian archeology.

Perhaps my schoolboy level of humor is best illustrated by the simple fart. Can I say ‘fart’ in a gardening column, by the way? I still find then funny. Even their various euphemisms are hilarious, as listed in great detail in the renowned Roger’s Profanisaurus, a reference tome edited by a gentleman by the name of Roger Mellie.

That ‘pull my finger’ thing, which produces an instant result? Totally childish and infantile, but superb. Few people appreciate that the volume and intensity of a botty burp can actually be measured: in braps. It must be true – the term is officially listed in the Profanisaurus.

I was a teacher some years ago. I could never understand how many of my colleagues could deal with the spontaneous giggles and sniggers that inevitably appeared around the class after one of the kids produced a trouser cough. I always gave up on the stone-face look, and tended to end up giggling along with them.

Even Peter Sellers was affected by the sound of an air biscuit in a similar fashion. Who can forget that scene in one of the Pink Panther films, with four of them in a lift, when one of them rips one off, with the result that despite doing their level best, not one of them could keep a straight face.

I’m not sure that I’m the only person in the world who thinks that breaking wind under the duvet and immediately burying the wife’s head under the covers while screaming “dutch oven” is the epitome of sophisticated humor.

There are many other infantile things that just seem to scream out for salacious remarks. Just about any mention of leathergoods in any context is usually enough to elicit a childish giggle. Is it possible to mention the word ‘rubber’ without getting the same inevitable reaction from those of a childish ilk?

As it happens, rubber is a pretty regular sight here on the island. I’m not thinking of what this stuff is eventually turned into, but where it comes from. Rubber trees are everywhere; many of us will pass every day without giving it a second thought.

The humble rubber tree, or Hevea Brasiliensis as it’s more correctly known, is perhaps one of the most common trees in Thailand, yet very few of us have in our gardens.

These things are all over the place, just sitting there in the background quietly getting on with the business of growing and forming huge plantations around the island – plantations that are dwindling in number daily. They haven’t been here that long in comparative terms, and have a pretty amazing history.

It was actually Brazil that originally provided the world with the rubber tree. History time (I promise not to do this at parties, by the way): In 1876, Henry Wickham, a local planter acting for the British government, decided to transport a few from the lower Amazon area of Brazil to London.

The seeds were germinated at the Tropical Herbarium in Kew Gardens in London later that year. From there, some of the resulting seedlings were exported to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The next year, 22 seedlings were sent from Ceylon to Singapore, where they grew enthusiastically, and the technique of tapping (from the side of the tree) was developed. Prior to this, the trees had to be felled before the latex could be extracted, which wasn’t exactly ideal, or profitable long-term.

By 1900, most of the many techniques and agricultural practices required to establish large plantations had been developed. One technique they found particularly useful was bud grafting. This is essentially a cloning technique which ensures that genetically identical trees can be produced in unlimited numbers.

Over the next 40 years or so, the British chaps in Malaya (now Malaysia) and the Dutch in Indonesia cleared large areas of rainforest to create rubber plantations. Sorry, tree-huggers. At the same time, local farmers saw the opportunities of rubber cultivation, and planted small groves of trees to supplement their own income.

This gives rise to two types of rubber plantations in most producing countries: the large estates or plantations, and the smallholdings. It’s the smallholdings that we see here in Phuket; they produce those solid rubber sheets that you’ll often see hanging from lines, looking like grubby white towels on a washing line.

All natural rubber originates in the hevea tree, and it starts its journey when the tree is tapped, which doesn’t usually happen more often than once every couple of days. A tapper starts the hike around his plantation before dawn. At each tree, he uses a sharp knife to shave off the thinnest possible layer from the intact section of bark.

The cut must be neither too deep or too thick, as either will reduce the productive life of the tree. This gets the latex flowing, and the tapper leaves a small cup underneath the cut. The tapper returns a few hours later and collects the white sticky goo in the cup. This double round trip usually finishes at about 2 pm.

Surprisingly, the latex that rubber comes from isn’t actually made from sap. The sap actually runs deeper inside the tree, beneath the cambium, which is the slightly harder part of the tree beneath the bark that does all the growing. Latex runs in the latex ducts which are in a layer immediately outside the cambium.

This shows how highly-skilled the tappers really are. If the cambium is cut, then the tree is damaged, because the cambium is where all the growth takes place. Too much damage to the cambium, and the tree stops growing and stops making latex.

Well I’ve somehow managed to get through a whole story about something itching for a lewd comment without making one single inane schoolboy-style remark about what rubber can be turned into. I think I’ve done rather well, to be honest. Rubbery.



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