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The Fish Poison Tree

Catherine is a proponent for responsible stewardship of our natural resources and covers topics of plant life and sustainable living.

 The beautiful blossom of  Barringtonia asiatica attracts nocturnal pollinators like bats and moths.

The beautiful blossom of Barringtonia asiatica attracts nocturnal pollinators like bats and moths.

Many years ago while visiting a college friend, I went to the Honolulu Botanical Gardens, a living museum of impressive tropical trees and plants. We had the privilege of touring in an intimate group of 3. While strolling the grounds, I curiously picked up a boxy seed pod from the grass and was told by the docent that it had fallen from the Fish Poison Tree. She went on to explain that they had been used by early islanders to stun fish for easy capture, hence the name. Cool. She had piqued my interest, and I wanted to learn more!

The exotic trees and plants from remote islands and rain forests support great biodiversity and have to compete for survival in dense environments. They have some truly innovative ways to insure sustenance, pollination, reproduction, and protection from predators. Insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and humans have all learned to co-exist here within a symbiotic relationship.

seed pod clusters of Barringtonia asiatica

seed pod clusters of Barringtonia asiatica

The Fish Poison Tree, Barringtonia Asiatica, is also known as Putat Laut, Butun, and Box Fruit Tree. It is found on the islands of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans and is native to the mangrove forests of Indonesia.

As the clusters of pods ripen and fall to the ground, they can be carried by the ocean currents for hundreds of miles until they travel ashore. Among the sea- drifting seeds and pods, it is one of the most widespread. Amazingly, its buoyant seed pods can survive on the ocean surface for as long as 15 years!

Once the pods are pushed on to land, they easily germinate in the rich volcanic soil of newly formed islands when nourished with water from tropical rains.

After the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, these sea drifters were among the first arrivals to take root. All parts of the tree are poisonous, so this helps to insure its survival.

The beautiful, deeply perfumed, poufy asterisk- shaped flowers attract nocturnal visitors. This is the tree's equivalent to the showy mating dance of other creatures. In addition to bats, the sweet flowers with long pink stamens attract moths. Among them is Attacus Atlas, one of the world's largest specimens from the Saturnid family.

A moth spends its limited life span in search of a mate as reproduction is its only task at this stage; however, it also unwittingly serves a very important purpose as a pollinator. The snake head pattern on the upper tips of the Atlas moth's 10" wings staves off would-be predators, so it is a very intimidating and effective pollinator indeed!

With its large size, snakehead- like wing tips and translucent white markings, the Atlas moth is very imposing to potential predators.

With its large size, snakehead- like wing tips and translucent white markings, the Atlas moth is very imposing to potential predators.

The Many Uses of the Box Fruit Tree

The box fruit's numerous air chambers make it very buoyant, and the lantern-shaped pods were actually used as floats for fishing nets.The Palauan natives of Micronesia ground up the dried pods of this tree to anesthetize fish which then could be easily gathered in nets. Since the saponin poison only targeted the nervous systems of the fish, the flesh was left untainted for eating. Other saponin containing plants like soap plant and yucca were also used by native tribes in the Western hemisphere for the same purpose.

Dried seed pods were ground up and used to stun fish for easy capture; hence the name Fish Poison tree. These pods could survive afloat on ocean waves for up to 15 years!

Dried seed pods were ground up and used to stun fish for easy capture; hence the name Fish Poison tree. These pods could survive afloat on ocean waves for up to 15 years!

Many parts of the plants are useful. Indigenous people carefully used the pod's toxic seeds to rid the body of intestinal worms. The leaves were carefully prepared over heat and applied to the skin to treat wounds, chronic infection, and rheumatism, and extracts were mixed with water to relieve stomach ache. Today scientists are still experimenting with the medicinal properties of this plant which have been shown to reduce tumors in mice. The wood of the tree is used as construction lumber and as a suitable material in the making of canoes.


A Beautiful Landscape Tree for Tropical Regions

Barringtonia asiatica trees line Marine Drive along the Mumbai waterfront.

Barringtonia asiatica trees line Marine Drive along the Mumbai waterfront.


These majestic trees can reach 40 feet or more in height with a canopy of nearly equal spread. They make attractive and functional shade trees and can be seen lining the waterfront streets of Mumbai.The large leafy rosettes are especially attractive.

The young leaflets are greenish-gold with pink veins, standing out in contrast to the mature deep green foliage and the older yellow spent leaves. Barringtonia Asiatica is a tropical tree well- suited to island and coastal regions with ample rainfall and humidity.

Although the tree can be easily propagated from either seed or cuttings, it is best enjoyed in native habitats and botanical gardens with suitable growing conditions. It is just one example of the many fascinating trees among the 100,000 known specimens in existence worldwide.

© 2012 Catherine Tally

Comments

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 19, 2020:

Very cool! I am amazed at how far they can travel!

Tracy Iovanna on June 19, 2020:

I found one of these washed up on our beach in NC this afternoon.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on April 04, 2020:

Hi John. Wow, that's awesome! It's astonishing how seed pods can stay afloat for so long and be carried such great distance by ocean currents. Thanks for the info. Take care, Cat:)

John mclachlan on April 04, 2020:

Hi I found one of these box fruit seeds in Oban, Scotland on the rocks!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 31, 2020:

Thank you, Eddelene.

Eddelene Marais on January 31, 2020:

Good morning

Fantastic information. We live in Jeffreys Bay South Africa and picked up two of these fruits on the beach this morning. First time we have seen them . We walk on the beach every day.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on August 27, 2018:

Thank you, Elizabeth! I appreciate the thoughtful comments. Your point about the Polynesian description is well made. The first botanical specimen was found in Java, Indonesia, and the trees have populated many islands besides French Polynesia. I agree that it should just be called "box fruit tree."

Elizabeth Divine on August 27, 2018:

Barringtonia asiatica is certainly one of natures treasures, this tree should be planted where ever possible. The nocturnal scent of the heavenly flowers alone defines some of the worlds most evocative tropical coastal paradises on earth.

Nice write up but, and this is the problem with using common names "Polynesian box fruit tree" they're simply not accurate not even botanically accurate but rather confusing. Of course this tree has local names where ever it grows be it naturalised or native and in their respective languages. So Im sure the Polynesians wont mind at all if its just called the "box fruit tree" for us Anglophiles, as it's certainly not only native to Polynesia. In fact I have one growing as native as a swaying tribe of hula dancers on my beach terrace in Taiwan! Just shows, Im sure those natives of the Philippines for another example would be equally surprised they had adopted anything never mind something Polynesian in their equally native botong trees too!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 19, 2014:

Hi Dave,

I appreciate your taking the time to read about this tree. I thought you might enjoy it and am glad you did! Thank you for the positive comments and votes. :)

Dave from Lancashire north west England on January 19, 2014:

I found this article very fascinating and it as added to my knowledge of the worlds flora. I am not, unfortunately, familiar with this plant, { before reading your amazing account of it} . Great read voted up and interesting.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 25, 2012:

Thank you, Marsei. I'm always happy to see you here and appreciate your thoughtful comments. When in London a few years ago, I picked up David Attenborough's Amazing Rare Things. I think you'd find it interesting too. My best:)

Sue Pratt from New Orleans on September 25, 2012:

This is fascinating, interesting and I learned things here. Beautifully written and grammatically correct as always.

Voted up and shared

marsei

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 25, 2012:

Hello tobusiness,

Well said! I couldn't agree more with you. So glad you stopped by to read and comment. Thank you for following me and leaving the kind fan mail. I really appreciate it:)

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on September 25, 2012:

Nature is amazing, sometimes cruel but also tender, awesome and so very clever, especially when it comes to propagating itself, it may seem chaotic but it is so well planned. I really love this hub a pleasure to read.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 24, 2012:

Hello RTalloni :) It is awesome to think of all the amazing things on record and those yet to be discovered. Our rain forests purportedly hold many that are still unknown. I'm happy you stopped by. Glad you enjoyed the read. Thanks for commenting. :)

RTalloni on September 24, 2012:

It may be just one example, but it is an amazing example. The seed pod looks a bit like what platycodons' flower buds would look like if they dried just before blooming. Thanks for sharing a bit of your trip to the botanical gardens.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 24, 2012:

Thank you, kashmir:) I always feel a boost to write after reading your uplifting comments. I am so glad that you enjoyed reading about this interesting tree. My best to you as always!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on September 24, 2012:

This is such a well written and interesting hub and a very fascinating read ! Well done !

Vote up and more !!!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 23, 2012:

Hi Mhatter,

I'm happy to see you here! Glad you found the subject as interesting as I do. Thanks for dropping by to read and comment. I appreciate it as always! :)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 23, 2012:

Hi Jesse,

I can relate and wish I'd had some powder in my tackle box too-lol I'm so glad that you stopped by to read and comment. Thank you for following me. I look forward to sharing our interests. My best:)

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on September 23, 2012:

How fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

jessefutch from North Carolina on September 23, 2012:

This is very interesting. I love to fish but absolutely stink at it! I wonder if I could eBay some of these??!! Awesome hub. Voted up!

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