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Cerbera manghas L. 1753
pronounced: SER:ber-uh MANG-ass
(Apocynaceae – the oleander family)
synonym: Cerbera lactaria Buch.-Ham. ex Spreng. 1825
pronounced: SER-ber-uh lack-TAIR-ee-uh
common names: Native Frangipani, Milkwood, Sea Mango
The genus name comes from Cerberus, in Greek mythology, the monstrous three-headed dog who guarded the gate to Hades, to ensure that no living person could enter, but only the spirits of the dead, and that no-one could leave. He had a snake for a tail, and snakes down his back like a mane. In Dante’s Inferno, he is described as having a human head. He was overcome several times, with the aid of gods or supernatural talents: most famously, in Hercules’ final labour, which was to capture Cerberus. He accomplished this by wrestling him into submission. Orpheus used his musical skills to lull Cerberus to sleep.
The name was used for this genus because the leaves and the fruits, particularly the seeds, contain the deadly cardiac poison cerberin, the ingestion of which can cause sudden death. In Madagascar, the seeds were used in ritual killings of sentenced kings and queens. Indeed, in that part of the world the tree is known as the Madagascan Ordeal Bean. The sap was used in some places to poison the tips of spears and arrows.
Manghas poses more problems as to its derivation. The only web site I have found that gives any explanation for the name blandly states that it is ‘the Latin word for mango’. As the mango was unknown in Europe in Roman times, this is unlikely, unless it was a word coined in ‘botanical Latin’ after the fruit became known to the Portuguese in the early 16th century. The -ngh- in the word is not a typical Latin form, but probably arose from a Latinization of the Greek -γγ- in the word μαγγανον, which is pronounced something like ‘mangañon’, and may have been chosen for the species name because of its similarity to the Tamil word for mango, which is mangai. One of the several meanings of this Greek word is ‘an acorn or any similar fruit’. This species was named in 1753 by the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who virtually invented the present system of botanical classification. In the synonym, lactaria is from the Latin for ‘containing milk’.
The tree occurs naturally in Africa, tropical Asia, Australia and some of the Pacific Islands, occupying coastal habitats, often associated with mangrove forests. It has been introduced into Hawaii and some other tropical locations as an ornamental. There are two growing in gardens by the side of the road in Magnetic Street, Picnic Bay, and various others that seem to have escaped from cultivation.
It is a small, evergreen tree that usually grows up to 3 or 4 metres tall. The shiny, dark green leaves are ovate in shape, and alternate. The flowers are fragrant, and have a broadly spreading white tubular 5-lobed corolla roughly 3 to 5 cm in diameter, with a pink to red throat. There are five stamens, and the ovary is situated above the other flower parts. The fruits are egg-shaped, anything up to 10 cm long, and turn bright red at maturity. I have not seen fruits on any of the Magnetic Island trees, but they have been observed in fruit at Cape Tribulation. All parts of the plant contain latex.
The moth Comostola chlorargyra uses this as a food plant for its caterpillars.
The wood is occasionally used in tropical Asia for mouldings, fruit cases, core veneer, matches, clogs, and plain furniture. It was once used for building, but now is mainly used for carving, especially, because of its lightness, for face masks in Sri Lanka. Another interesting use is for the making of the moulds upon which Panama hats are woven.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2009-2014
Page last updated 24th August 2018