Green Culture Singapore
Feature Article for July 2006
Pictures contributed by
National Parks Board (NParks) & Wilson Wong (WW)
Text by Prof. Wee Yeow Chin
(Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society)
Online on 28 July 2006

This family gives us many ornamental shrubs, trees and woody climbers. If there is any one factor that is common to members of this family, it is the tubular flower, looking trumpet-like or funnel-shaped, often slightly flattened from above downwards. The five petals are joined, with only the lobes free. The upper two lobes are smaller than the three lower ones. Another common feature is the two-valved fruit that splits open to release the flat, winged seeds. Leaves are often compound, one to three times pinnate, rarely simple. They are arranged alternately or in opposites. In many species the flower bud is filled with liquid.

Left: Yellow bells, Tecoma stans (WW)
Center: Cape honeysuckle, Tecomaria capensis (NParks)
Right: Garlic vine, Mansoa alliacea (WW)

The most common member of this family, one that most of us can relate to, is yellow bells (Tecoma stans). This garden shrub brought in long ago from South America is commonly planted as its yellow flowers adorn the plant several times a year. Quite often, the plant is either in full bloom or heavily laden with the many elongated pods bursting at the seam, the papery winged seeds ready to be blown away by the wind. The Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) is an African plant that is similarly popular with gardeners. Its clusters of bright orange flowers brighten the garden. It is usually grown as a shrub but the long trailing branches can be trained along the fence or shaped into a hedge. Another plant commonly grown is garlic vine (Mansoa alliacea), whose leaves give off a distinct garlic smell when crushed. It has attractive pale mauve and white flowers. Besides the garlic smell, this woody climber can also be recognised from the pinnate leaves, each made up of a pair of leaflets, some of which may have a terminal tendril. Yet another common member is jacaranda (Jacaranda filicifolia). This South American tree was once popular along roadsides but is now not too popular. The tree is deciduous and sheds its leaves regularly but not all trees along a particular road do so together. It flowers rather haphazardly and never as intensely as those grown in countries where the climate is less uniform than in Singapore.

Tabebuia rosea
Habit (NParks)
Right: Flowers (NParks)

Since some years ago another South American tree has found its way into Singapore's garden city. This is the trumpet tree (Tabebuia rosea syn. T. pentaphylla). It is fast growing and flowers profusely, often covering the entire crown with its yellow or pink blooms, usually after a dry spell. Flowering is gregarious, a rather uncommon phenomenon in a country where it is either hot and wet or hot and dry. Very few species share this characteristic, seen in plants like tembusu, angsana and pigeon orchids. The trumpet tree is now one of the few species of plants that provides spectacular displays of colours to our otherwise mostly green garden city.

Stereospermum fimbriatum
Habit (NParks)
Right: Flowers (NParks)

The snake tree (Stereospermum fimbriatum) is rather tall and straight, once lining that part of Dunearn Road fronting the old Race Course. I remember driving down this particular stretch of road during the mornings when the trees were in flower. As I drove past these magnificent trees, the detached corollas used to spin down gracefully from above. The pale lilac corollas with fringed petal lobes ended up on the roads, to be scattered with the passing of every car. Months later, these trees would bear long, twisted fruits, looking like so many snakes hanging from the branches. Thus the common name, snake tree. Alas, these old trees were subsequently chopped down as they were deemed a public hazard. The rows of similar trees along a stretch of Paterson Road similarly met the same fate. Happily, many new saplings have been planted in various parts of the main island but I suppose it would take some years before we can witness the same display of falling corollas.

Spathodea campanulata
Habit (NParks)
Right: Flowers (NParks)

An African introduction, the African tulip (Spathodea campanulata) used to line Singapore's roads, but no more. A few trees can still be seen along the edge of wastelands, sometimes even forming thickets. They have been exiled from the wayside because branches tend to suddenly fall, thus exposing pedestrians and motorists alike to unexpected dangers. But in many Hawaiian Islands they still line roads, their large bunches of orange-red flowers make them very attractive indeed. I still remember as a child collecting the flower buds swollen with water and using them as water pistols to squirt the trapped liquid at other children. This no doubt is the reason why it is also sometimes called the syringe tree. The fruit pods stick out from the crown like so many sore thumbs and when they fall onto the ground below after splitting open to liberate the many flat winged seeds, children used to collect the empty fruit shells and float them down drains.

An interesting tree from this part of the world is the midnight horror (Oroxylum indicum). The tree has sparse branches and extremely large leaves. These leaves are three, even four times pinnate. The main and side stalks are jointed, with the ends swollen. These massive leaves are often mistaken for branches. The leaves are not shed all together but in parts. The end leaflets are firstly shed, followed by the end stalks bearing these leaflets. Then come the side stalks and finally the main leaf stalks. These stalks, falling in sections, accumulate at the base of the tree, looking like a collection of bones. This gives rise to another common name, broken bones plant. The fallen leaves leave large prominent scars on the branches. The large, fleshy red-purple flowers open at night, giving out a foxy smell. This attracts night-flying bats that help pollinate the flowers. When the fruits develop, they hang down like so many sabres from the branches. In his Wayside Trees of Malaya, E.J.H. Corner calls it the Tree of Damocles. Now how did the tree get the name midnight horror? For an answer, we need to refer back to Corner, but then, that is another story.

Local Chinese medicinal shops stock the winged seeds of midnight horror. They are used to treat throat infection, coughs, abdominal pains, liver problems and mouth ulcers. The bark taken from the stem and roots are used medicinally in a number of Asian countries to treat intestinal complaints, diarrhoea, dysentery and rheumatism. The Thais, who make use of many plants for food, collect the young leaves and eat them as a salad. The flowers are blanched and the young pods fried before eating.

Kigelia africana
Habit (NParks)
Center: Flowers (NParks)
Right: Fruits (NParks)

Another interesting tree that is commonly seen in the African savanna, especially when you are on a safari, is the African sausage tree (Kigelia africana syn. K. pinnata). It is also known as German sausage tree or even cucumber tree. These names come from the size and shape of the fruits that hang prominently down from the branches. The tree has been introduced to many tropical countries, Singapore included. The large flowers arise along a long, hanging stalk. Just like the flowers of the midnight horror, these flowers open at night and give off an unpleasant odour, no doubt to attract bats. The fruits are unlike those of other members in that they are large, sausage-like structures and do not split open. To the Africans they resemble the hanging breasts of old women who have suckled many children during their younger days. Because of this resemblance, the fruits are a symbol of fertility and the seeds are eaten to enhance the men's sexual performance. The fruits have a number of medicinal uses - the pulp is used as a purgative and for the dressing of ulcers and the bark to treat syphilis and gonorrhoea. In Kenya slices of the baked fruit are sometimes used to flavour African beer. I am sure there is at least one tree growing in our Singapore Botanic Gardens.


Green Culture Singapore would like to express our gratitude to Singapore Gardening Society for sharing with us this interesting article.

We would also like to thank National Parks Board (NParks) for allowing us to publish some of their pictures used in this feature article.

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