Colubrina asiatica

Asian snakewood


Colubrina asiatica

(L.) Brongn. 1826

pronounced: kol-oo-BREE-nuh ay-zee-AT-ik-uh

(Rhamnaceae — the buckthorn family)

synonym — Ceanothus asiaticus

L. 1753

pronounced: kee-an-OH-thuss ay-zee-AT-ik-uss

common names: Asian snakewood, Asiatic colubrina, latherleaf, wild coffee

native 4Colubrina comes from the Latin coluber, a snake, and means ‘snakelike’; asiatica means, of course, ‘from Asia’.

Colubrina asiatica occurs naturally from eastern Africa to India, southeast Asia, tropical Australia, and the Pacific Islands. It was introduced from Asia into the Caribbean islands, probably in the 1850s, where it was brought by East Asian immigrants who wanted it for its traditional uses for food, medicine, fish poison and soap substitute. As with so many plants that have become pests, it escaped from cultivation.

This is a low shrub with long climbing or drooping branches that can reach 6 m long or more. The leaves are 5–10 cm long, pointed ovate in shape, with shiny green upper surfaces and toothed margins. They are attached to the stems by slender petioles, and are arranged alternately along the branches.

The small greenish flowers are borne in axillary clusters. The fruits are small capsules a little over 1 cm in diameter. At first green and fleshy, these become dark brown with age. Each fruit contains 3 tiny greyish seeds.

lNatural communities where this plant occur include coastal dunes, coastal forests, tidal marshes and tidal mangrove swamps. It is most often found growing at the interface of uplands and submerged lands. The one photographed is on the higher ground at the back of the mangroves at the northern end of Picnic Bay. This is a very invasive plant that can invade both disturbed and undisturbed forest sites. It is also frequently found along elevated road shoulders in coastal areas, from where it can spread into adjacent natural areas. The plants grow rapidly in full sun.

This plant produces a thick mat of tangled stems that can be a metre or so thick, impacting the underlying vegetation by growing on it or shading it out. It has become a real problem in both the eastern and western coastlines of central and southern Florida, including the Florida Keys, where it is having a serious effect on the hardwood forests. When it takes over an area, it can also have a serious effect on native wildlife, by removing their habitat. It exhibits tremendous vegetative regeneration, including adventitious rooting from branches coming into contact with the soil, and vigorous resprouting from cut or injured stems.

As the seeds resemble small pebbles, it has been suggested that they may be used as crop stones by seed-eating birds, who may then disperse them over long distances. Some seeds also drop from the plants into the water, and they can be dispersed by ocean currents.

Seedlings can flower and fruit within the first year of growth, and even young plants produce many seeds, so open areas around the plant are rapidly colonized. Solitary plants are found only if they are too young to fruit, or if they are growing in dense vegetation.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009-2015
Page last updated 16th November 2018