When traveling through the hillsides, both north and south, it will quickly become clear that you are not in rice country any more, these villages owe their livelihoods to the fruit trees and coffee bushes that thrive at these altitudes. There is a wide variety of cultivated plants in these areas. Within a relatively small space you can find vanilla, chocolate, durian, cloves, cashews, and coffee all mixed together. Like a bistro who’s menu has become a bit giddy!
There are some areas of cultivation with a semblance of order, but the majority of these orchards appear wonderfully chaotic. It would be easy for you to pass by and not even know that agriculture was being practiced here. It takes a while to focus on the logic of it all, which simply amounts to planting small things under tall things, the larger trees provide shelter to the smaller and more sensitive plants.
And in the end there is wisdom in this jumble of plants. No single tree is allowed to dominate, and so the plants are more resistant to disease and climatic changes. In short, the whole enterprise is highly sustainable.
The two plants that are most often found are clove and coffee.
In the early 20th century the Dutch were often credited with the ‘discovery’ of this tree, and indeed before world war two the Dutch and the clove tree were were still firmly identified together in the western imagination. However, the ‘discovery’ of this plant far predates the Dutch presence in South East Asia, and forms a long list of varied interests throughout history. The first known trade in cloves was done by the Chinese in the first century AD, then there was involvement by Arab merchants based in Mallaca. Next the Portuguese appeared briefly followed by the Spanish and English. Eventually the Dutch returned to dominance and monopolised the trade in cloves at the end of the 17th century. Eventually they were not able to maintain this monopoly and the cultivation and distribution was shared with the French, British, East Africans, and Indians.
Together with nutmeg, cloves actually played an historically important role in the International balance of power during the colonial era.
It is actually a lovely tree, a member of the Myrtaceae family, which also includes the lofty eucalyptus. It has a loosely conical shape and delicate colouring which ranges from deep olive to a yellowish peach colour in the young leaves. But it is the aroma of the oil produced by the flowers which gives this plant such a legendary history.
The Chinese considered the clove blossoms to be an aphrodisiac, and that is easy to understand. Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to travel through mountain villages during the clove harvest. The flowers are spread out on mats to dry in the clear sunlight and cool mountain air. The sweet and complex aroma infuses the surroundings and creates a large scale aromatherapy session, a truly democratic gift from nature.