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Barringtonia asiatica (L.) Kurz 1875
pronounced: bar-ring-TOH-nee-uh ay-see-AT-ick-uh
(Lecythidaceae: the Brazil Nut family)
This species of Barringtonia is native to mangrove habitats on the tropical coasts and islands of the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans, from Africa, India to south-east Asia and Polynesia. There is an avenue of these trees in the Townsville Strand Park near the Tobruk swimming baths, and they have also been planted along the sides of Spence Street, in central Cairns.
On Magnetic Island, there is a magnificent specimen growing just above the beach in Radical Bay, another grows near the Alma Bay Lifesaving clubhouse, and there is another in the tidal creek beyond the bowls club.
This is a medium-sized tree growing up to 25 m tall. The bark is grey or brown, rough, or smooth scaly, and thick. The sessile leaves are in rosettes at the ends of the branches. They are narrow obovate, 20 – 40 cm long and 10 – 20 cm wide, broadly rounded, leathery and hairless. The young leaves are a beautiful bronze with pinkish veins, while the old leaves turn yellowish.
The flowers are delightful puffballs of white stamens tipped with pink. Like the Cocky Apple, this tree flowers at night, and the heavy scent of the flowers attracts large moths and nectar-feeding bats. By the next morning the flowers are usually found strewn beneath the tree.
The fruits are lantern-shaped, and float high in the water, being able to survive drifting on the sea for long distances and for at least two years; it was one of the first plants to colonize Anak Krakatau when this island first appeared after the Krakatau eruption. The outermost layer of the fruit wall is green, turning brown as it ripens. The middle layer is spongy, and contains air sacs to help the fruit float. The innermost layer is hard and thick to protect the seed. The layers of hard and spongy coverings are fairly similar to the coconut’s.
All parts of the tree contain saponin, a poison. The seeds and other parts of the plant are pounded, pulped or grated to release the poison, that is used to stun fish in inland streams. The floating seeds are sometimes used as floats for fishing nets.
The timber is reportedly of poor quality, and yet, on Pacific Islands where timber of any decent size is scarce, it is often used for sawn timber, posts and poles, carving, turning, handicrafts, and for some boat parts. It is said to be brittle, and not very long-lasting.
The tree is colourful and shady, and is commonly used as a roadside tree in Singapore.
Photographs taken at Townsville Strand & Radical Bay, 2008, 2009
Page last updated 21st July 2018