Mallotus discolor

yellow kamala


Mallotus discolor

F.Muell. ex Benth. 1873

pronounced: mal-LOW-tuss diss-KULL-uh

(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)


common name: yellow kamala

native 4Mallotus is derived from the Latin mallus, a lock of wool, referring to the hairs on the leaves and fruits of some members of the genus; discolor is Latin for ‘of another colour, of varied colours’.

This is a small tree, usually growing to 15 m, found in subtropical, dry and littoral rainforests from the Clarence River in NSW as far north as Townsville. Several specimens, in rainforest, have been found 30 m tall, but this is unusual. Where the rainforest has been cleared, the tree may be seen as a remnant, or possible a regeneration, species. When growing in open situations it becomes a narrow tree rather than spreading, and often develops a dense canopy. Such specimens are very attractive trees. The tree pictured is by the side of the road to the old Arcadia jetty in Geoffrey Bay.

The trunk is not buttressed, and attains a diameter of about 25 cm. The bark is a dull grey or brownish grey, and on older trees may have some cracks and scales; but usually it is fairly smooth. The branches are slender, green or brown with reddish hairy growth towards the end.

The leaves are simple, alternate, the blade green above, whitish to yellow and downy below, hence the species name discolor. They are lanceolate to ovate with a long tip, 4 – 10 cm long. They have long stems, variable in length, but usually 4 – 10 cm.

Flowers are borne usually in November or December. They are greyish and occur in racemes, 7 – 10 cm long, from the leaf axils.

The fruits are capsule-like, about 6 mm in diameter, yellow or orange, 2 – 4 lobed, usually ripe in January. They are attractive to birds and fruit bats.

The tree is propagated from seed. Only fresh seeds should be used, as they are viable only for a short period. Cuttings may also be used.

A yellow dye can be produced from the fruit covering. The related species Mallotus philippensis is the tree usually associated with Kamala dye, but I understand that Mallotus discolor can also be used. The granules that cover the ripe fruit are used in India for dyeing silk and wool a bright orange. It is now generally used only at village level, as it is much too expensive to produce in comparison with synthetic dyes.

Another species of the genus, Mallotus nesophilus, is also found occasionally on Magnetic Island. It, too, has fruits covered with yellow granules, and can be distinguished from Mallotus discolor by its leaves, which are rounded and rough, obtuse at the apex.

Mallotus timber is called balek angin in Malaysia. The softwood is not differentiated from the heartwood, which is straw-coloured. The texture is slightly coarse, but even, with straight grain. The timber is only moderately strong. It is slightly difficult to saw, but planing is relatively easy. The timber seasons relatively quickly, but there is a great deal of shrinkage. It is suitable for wall panelling, domestic flooring, furniture, non-impact tool handles, wooden sandals, and packing cases. It can also be used for veneer and plywood.


Photographs taken at Geoffrey Bay 2013, 2018
Page last updated 1st February 2019