Polyalthia longifolia

Indian mast trees


Polyalthia longifolia f. pendulata

(Sonn.) Thwaites 1864

pronounced: pol-ee-AL-thee-uh long-gee-FOH-lee-uh forma peh-dew-LAH-tuh

(Annonaceae — the custard apple family)


common name: Indian mast tree

Polyalthia is derived from the Greek πολυς (polys), much, many or great, and αλθαια (althaia), the ancient Greek name for the marshmallow (Althaea officinalis); longifolia is from the Latin, longus, long, and folium, a leaf.
The pendulous form of the tree, as illustrated, is the one usually grown locally, although other forms exist with more upright branches. The name ‘mast’ refers to the common use of the trunk for ships’ masts.

This is a tall (usually to 9 or 10 m, but can reach 20 m), slender, handsome, evergreen tree with a straight trunk, the entire length of the plant usually covered by long wavy leaves. The golden or coppery-brown new leaves contrasting with the dark green of the older leaves form a pleasing contrast. The tree is probably a native of the drier parts of Sri Lanka, and is very commonly cultivated all over India. Some have been planted as street trees in Townsville, and the ones pictured are in front of a house in Mandalay Avenue in Nelly Bay.

The thick bark is smooth in texture and a greyish brown in colour. The branches are finely striate and minutely puberulent when young, but soon become glabrous.

The leaves are on petioles 5 – 10 mm long, They are a dark glossy green, paler underneath, 10 – 30 cm long by 2.5 – 8 cm broad, lanceolate with undulate margins, stiffly membranous to thinly leathery. The base of the leaf may be cuneate, obtuse, or rounded, and the apex is acuminate. Emerging leaves are coppery, soft and delicate to the touch.

The small flowers, occurring for a brief 2 – 3 week period in spring, are in fascicles, shortly pedunculate, yellowish green in colour, with 5 narrowly triangular, star-like petals, and attract birds and butterflies. They are not fragrant.

The fruits are in a cluster of about 20 small ovoid single-seeded capsules, initially green, purple to black when ripe. They are eaten by both birds and bats.

Propagation is through direct sowing of seeds on site, or by planting out 2-year-old seedlings raised in pots. The seeds retain their viability for one season only. Cuttings may also strike successfully .

Both the trunk and the bark are used in the manufacture of fibres. The timber, as well as being used for ships’ masts, is used for making boxes and pencils. In Sri Lanka, the tree is held in high esteem; its leaves are used in religious ceremonies, and for decorating arches and doorways.

Readers in colder climates should note that the tree is very intolerant of frost.


Photographs taken in Nelly Bay 2014, 2016
Page last updated 17th March 2019