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Calophyllum inophyllum L. 1753
pronounced: kal-oh-FILL-um in-oh-FILL-um
(Clusiaceae— the St. John’s Wort family)
common names: Beauty Leaf, Alexandrian Laurel, Tamanu
Calophyllum comes from two Greek words, καλος (kalos), beautiful, and φυλλον (phyllon), a leaf; and inophyllum from ινωδης (inodes), fibrous, and φυλλον (phyllon), a leaf – a tree with a ‘beautiful fibrous leaf’. The second common name is confusing, as the tree does not come from Alexandria, nor is it a laurel; and it should not be confused with Danae racemosa, which is also known as the Alexandrian laurel. Our tree is native to East Africa, southern coastal India to Malaysia, and Australia. It is now widely cultivated all over the tropics, including several islands, chiefly as an ornamental tree. There is a fine line of these trees, joining with the banyan figs, she-oaks and sea almonds on the Picnic Bay foreshore.
Those who clean the Picnic Bay mall would not join with me in admiring these trees: the fruit is very popular with the fruit bats, who, when it is in season, make a terrible mess on the paving with the foul matter they regurgitate.
A slow-growing tree, it is low-branching when not pruned, and has a broad irregular crown. It can reach up to 20 m in height, and stands up well to cyclones. The trunk has light grey, shallowly ridged bark. The leaves are glossy and leathery, about 40 by 12 cm, with a pale midrib and fine parallel lateral veins at right angles to the rib, closely but evenly spaced. The leaves are basically elliptic in shape, but there is a good deal of variation in the tips of the leaves - emarginate, retuse, rounded or acute. The inflorescence is a raceme, with 4 to 15 flowers up to about 2.5 cm in diameter, with five spreading white petals and many yellow stamens. The flowers are very fragrant, reminiscent of lime blossom. Flowering can occur throughout the year, but there are usually two distinct flowering periods, in late spring and late autumn.
The fruit is a round, green drupe up to 3 or 4 cm in diameter, suspended on a 6 cm stalk, and contains a single large seed. When it ripens, the skin of the fruit becomes wrinkled, and its colour varies from yellow to brownish red. The seeds yield a thick, dark green oil for medicinal use or hair grease. Active ingredients in the oil are believed to regenerate tissue, and it is used by cosmetic manufacturers as an ingredient in skin creams. Freshly-harvested fruit contain little or no oil. The fruit is dried for a month, when it turns a dark chocolate brown and develops its sticky rich oil, which is cold-pressed. Among the many chemicals it contains are a unique fatty acid called Calophyllic acid, and an antibiotic lactone called Calophyllolide. It is easily and completely absorbed into the skin, leaving it feeling smooth and soft, with no greasiness. It mixes easily with most essential oils for use in aromatherapy. It can also be used for biodiesel production!
The fruits and leaves are reputed to be poisonous.
Tamanu wood is commercially available, and is mostly sourced from Melanesia or Polynesia. The sapwood is white, and the heartwood a reddish brown with a distinct figure produced by interlocking grain on tangential faces. The wood is moderately dense (specific gravity 0.6 – 0.8). Because of its grain and its propensity to shrink it is quite difficult to work, although it turns well. The grain tends to tear out during machining, and the timber often warps. It is resistant to termites, but is not often used for construction due to its high cost.
Traditional Pacific Islanders use the wood for the keel of the canoe, and then breadfruit wood for the sides. The wood is also traditionally used for food bowls in Hawaii (now usually made in the Philippines because of lower labour costs there, and then imported into Hawaii), because it contains no exudate from finished products that would taint the food. In Tahiti the tree is used for carving temple idols. Today the wood is used for cabinet-making as well as for turning and carving.
The tree is regarded as sacred in some Pacific islands because of its excellent growth in sandy soils as a shade tree, because of the useful oil, and because of its key role as traditional canoes’ keels. In its native habitat, both plant and oil have been used medically to treat a variety of ailments, mostly skin-related – chapped feet and hands, chilblain and skin cracks, bites, stings, acne, diabetic sores and eczema, to name but a few. It seems to have the capacity to accelerate wound healing and the growth of new tissue. It has also been used, apparently with some success, in the treatment of leprosy wounds.
Calophyllum oil makes a good soap that produces an abundant lather on contact with sea water.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay mall 2008, 2012
Page last updated 14th October 2016