Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fish Poison Tree

India is a wild and dangerous place: Man-eating tigers and leopards (not to mention bears), pythons, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, insane traffic, canon ball trees, and now fish poison trees.

Yesterday I narrowly averted getting killed by one of these canon balls (not really) only to learn that the cool looking fruit I found while jogging later in the day is toxic. Curious about what was inside the lantern shaped fruit I smashed the fruit on rocks. I really went at it, to no avail, so I brought it to our room to open it with a knife. Upon learning about its properties I decided not to proceed, though surely there was no danger in just opening it. I had no intention of eating it, for goodness sake!

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Pretty interesting looking, the pod is light weight and quite tough.
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Sharp edges on four sides.
Turns out the capsule is a tough, rubbery mesocarp that floats in the sea, allowing the seeds to disperse along coastal mangroves. The seed can last a up to 15 years and still germinate in far off places such as Anak Krakatau after the Krakatau eruption.

DSC_1397_1000pxIf this isn't cool enough, consider the flowers. According to the website of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii:
The beautiful and fragrant flowers open at night and attract large moths (it is among the plants that host the impressive Atlas Moth) and nectar-feeding bats with their heavy scent. The next morning, the flower stamens are found dissipated beneath the tree crown.
(Polunin, Ivan. 1987. Plants and Flowers of Singapore.)

 And finally, indigenous people had many medicinal uses for the plant including treating intestinal worms, chronic skin conditions and stomach aches. Following up on evidence that the plant was used to treat tumors in remote villages of Kerala, India, a study in 2002 published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found it to have anti-tumor properties in mice.

Indigenous people also used this plant to poison fish in tidal pools (hence the common name). Fortunately the toxin does not appear in the fish meat.

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Beside all of that, it is a beautiful tree.
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Fish poison tree (Barringtonia asiatica), on the right is a lovely tree with a broad crown. Notice the people to left for scale. The deciduous tree on the left is tropical almond tree (to be discussed).

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