Facts About the Polynesian Box Fruit Tree
Many years ago while visiting my college roommate, I went to the Honolulu Botanical Gardens, a living museum of impressive tropical trees and plants. We had the privilege of touring in an intimate group of 3. While strolling the grounds, I curiously picked up a boxy seed pod on the grass and was told by the docent that it was from the Fish PoisonTree and had been used by early islanders to stun fish for easy capture. Cool! I have always been fascinated by nature's ingenuity and man's ability to make use of it. She had piqued my interest, and I wanted to learn more!
The exotic trees and plants from remote islands and rain forests support great biodiversity and have to compete for survival. They have some truly innovative ways to insure sustenance, pollination, reproduction, and protection from predators. Insects, birds, repltiles, amphibians, small mammals, and humans have all learned to co-exist within a symbiotic relationship.
Drifting for years:
The world's largest moth: Attacus Atlas with its snakehead- like wing tips and translucent white markings is very imposing to potential predators.
The Fish Poison Tree, Barringtonia Asiatica, is also known as Putat Laut, Butun, and Box Fruit Tree. It is found on the isands of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans and is native to the mangrove forests of Indonesia. Amazingly, its buoyant seed pods can survive on the ocean surface for as long as 15 years! Once the pods are pushed onto land, they easily germinate in the rich volcanic soil of newly formed islands when nourished with water from tropical rains. All parts of the tree are poisonous, so this helps to insure its survival.
The beautiful, deeply perfumed poufy asterisk- shaped flowers attract nocturnal visitors. This is the tree's equivalent to the showy mating dance of other creatures. In addition to bats, the sweet flowers with long pink stamens attract moths. Among them is Attacus Atlas, one of the world's largest specimens from the Saturnid family. A moth spends its limited life span in search of a mate as reproduction is its only task at this stage; however it also unwittingly serves a very important purpose as a pollinator. The snake head pattern on the upper tips of the Atlas moth's 10" wings staves off would-be predators, so it is a very effective pollinator indeed!
Indigenous islanders would stun fish for easy capture.
As the clusters of pods ripen and fall to the ground, they can be carried by the ocean currents for hundreds of miles until they travel ashore. Among the sea- drifting seeds and pods it is one of the most widespread. After the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, these sea drifters were among the first arrivals to take root.
Special uses of the box fruit tree:
The box fruit's numerous air chambers make it very buoyant, and the lantern-shaped pods were actually used as floats for fishing nets.The Palauan natives of Micronesia ground up the dried pods of this tree to anesthetize fish which then could be easily gathered in nets. Since the saponin poison only targeted the nervous systems of the fish, the flesh was left untainted for eating. Other saponin containing plants like soap plant and yucca were also used by native tribes in the Western hemisphere to catch fish.
Many parts of the plants are useful. Indigenous people carefully used the pod's toxic seeds to rid the body of intestinal worms. The leaves were carefully prepared over heat and applied to the skin to treat wounds, chronic infection, and rheumatism, and extracts were mixed with water to relieve stomach ache. Today scientists are still experimenting with the medicinal properties of this plant which have been shown to reduce tumors in mice. The wood of the tree is used as construction lumber and as a suitable material in the making of canoes.
The Barrington asiatica tree is a host plant to the world's largest moth.
Polynesian Box Fruit trees line Marine Drive along the Mumbai waterfront.
A beautiful landscape tree for tropical regions:
These majestic trees can reach 40 feet or more in height with a canopy of nearly equal spread. They make attractive and functional shade trees and can be seen lining the waterfront streets of Mumbai.The large leafy rosettes are especially attractive. The young leaflets are greenish-gold with pink veins, standing out in contrast to the mature deep green foliage and the older yellow spent leaves. Barringtonia Asiatica is a tropical tree well- suited to island and coastal regions with ample rainfall and humidity. Although the tree can be easily propagated from either seed or cuttings, it is best enjoyed in native habitats and botanical gardens with suitable growing conditions. It is just one example of the many fascinating trees among the 100,000 known specimens in existence worldwide.
© 2012 Catherine Tally