The Fish Poison Tree
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.
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!
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.
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
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