Polyalthia nitidissima

canary beech


Polyalthia nitidissima

(Dunal) Benth. 1863

pronounced: pol-ee-AL-thee-uh nih-tih-DISS-ih-muh

(Annonaceae — the custard apple family)


common name: canary beech

native 4Polyalthia is derived from the Greek πολυς (polys), much, many or great, and αλθαια (althaia), the ancient Greek name for the marshmallow (Althaea officinalis); nitidissima is Latin, nitidissimus, very shining, very bright, very polished.

This attractive tree is quite widespread in the Northern Territory, Cape York Peninsula, and north-eastern Queensland, and down the coastal region as far as the Clarence River in north-eastern NSW. It grows at an altitude from sea level to about 800 m, and is usually found as an understorey species scattered in drier rainforest, especially on sands near the sea, and along moist scrubby watercourses. It is also found in New Guinea and New Caledonia. In a favourable position, it can grow as much as 18 m in height.
The tree pictured is on the edge of the scrub opposite the habitat area in Nelly Bay. The fruiting pictures were of a tree in Arcadia.

The leaves are simple and alternate, ovate to elliptic, 7 - 11 cm by 2 - 5 cm; the upper surface is shiny, and both surfaces are glabrous except for small brown hairy domatia on the lower surface. There are minute oil dots. The veins are fine and reticulate, and the petiole is 2 - 5 mm in length.

The flowers are solitary or in small groups, with peduncles 5 - 15 mm long, becoming up to 4 cm long in fruit; there are 3 sepals and 3 petals. The sepals are about 2 mm long, and the petals 10 - 15 mm, pale green in colour.

Glabrous globose or ovoid berries are produced, up to 1 cm in diameter, turning orange and then dark red as they ripen.

This is a food plant for the larval stages of several butterflies, including:

       • the Green Spotted Triangle (Graphium agamemnon),
       • the Pale Green Triangle (Graphium eurypylus), and
       • the Fivebar Swordtail (Graphium aristeus).

In northern Australia, the indigenous peoples use the wood to make shafts for fish spears. Although the species seldom grows large enough to produce millable logs, it does produce a useful general-purpose timber. The wood is grey to white, soft, close-grained and tough, and is fragrant.

The tree may be propagated from fresh seed, removed from the flesh. Germination is slow and erratic, and the tree is a very slow grower.


Photographs taken in Nelly Bay, 2013 and Arcadia 2017
Page last updated 17th March 2019