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Cordia subcordata Lam. 1792
pronounced: KOR-dee-uh sub-kor-DAH-tuh
(Boraginaceae — the comfrey family)
common name: Kou
The genus is named for Valerius Cordus, (1515–1544) a German physician and botanist who was the author of one of the greatest pharmacopoeias and one of the most celebrated herbals in history. He is also widely credited with having pioneered a method for synthesizing ether (which he called oleumdulci vitrioli, or ‘sweet oil of vitriol’). Cordus wrote prolifically, and also identified and described several new plant species. The University of Wittenberg awarded him a medical degree in 1544, the same year that his great herbal in five volumes, Historia Plantarum, was published — a work unique at the time for its balanced analysis of interest not only to botanists, but to pharmacists and herbalists as well. Later that same year, at the age of only 29, Cordus died of malaria while in Rome.
Subcordata is from the Latin subcordatus, ‘rather heart-shaped’, no doubt referring to the leaves.
This attractive tree is native to eastern Africa, India, south-east Asia, northern Australia, and the Pacific islands. It is a tree of the coasts, usually found at elevations of less than 30 m above sea level. It will grow on most soils. The tree photographed is in the interesting line of trees on the roadside outside the Recreation Camp in Picnic Bay.
The Kou tree normally grows to about 10 m tall, but can sometimes reach 15 m. The ovate leaves are 8–30 cm long and 5–13 cm wide.
The tubular flowers are 2.5–4 cm in diameter, and form cymes or panicles. The petals are orange and the sepals are pale green. Blooming occurs throughout the year, but most flowers are produced in the spring. The flowers are short-lived, and by early morning the ground under the tree is often littered with fallen flowers, as with the cocky apple.
Fruits are produced more or less year round. They are spherical, 2–3 cm long, and woody when mature. Each fruit contains four or fewer seeds about 1 cm long. The fruits are buoyant and may be carried long distances by ocean currents. The tree has the potential to spread easily by seeds, but rarely becomes an invasive pest.
The seeds are edible, used as famine foods. The wood of the tree burns readily, and in Papua New Guinea it is called the ‘Kerosene Tree’. The wood is soft, durable, easily worked, and resistant to termites. In ancient Hawaii the wood was used to make bowls and other utensils. The utensils were particularly useful for holding food, as the wood has no strong flavour to impart to the food, as can often be the case with other woods. Large calabashes, holding up to about 16 litres, were made from the wood and used to ferment and store poi . The flowers were used to make leis, while a dye for cloth was made from the leaves.
The caterpillars of the Kou Leafworm Ethmia nigroapicella use the tree as a food plant.
Nowadays, the wood is mainly used for making handicrafts and figurines sold to tourists.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 16th March 2018