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The Brazil-nut Tree

by Vanessa Ting

Above: The Brazil-nut Tree at the UM Main Library at sunset.

There is a tree at the carpark of the UM Main Library which may induce feelings of bermusement in the eye of the beholder. Its solid, majestic trunk is crowned by bedraggled branches, looking for all the world like an overgrown boy with an uneven haircut. The incongruous image is actually a testament of survival and tenacity.

You may think it went through some bad pruning, but this tree was struck by lightning some years back. With all its branches torn off, it was due to be felled, until it was identified as a Brazil-nut Tree (Bertholletia excelsa), an increasingly rare species in Malaysia and the only tree of its kind on campus.

Even in its native South America, the Brazil-nut Tree is endangered in the wild, and is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List - mostly as a result of deforestation. Also, only a single type of large rat, the agouti (Dasyprocta sp), with teeth sharp enough to chew through the 'heavily-armoured' fruit pod, is able to propagate seeds for new tree growth. As a result of hunting and habitat loss, agoutis are decreasing in number.

The genus Bertholletia is named after the French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet, and the species name excelsa is Latin for 'tall' or 'lofty' - self-evident as this tree can grow up to a towering height of 60 metres.

Left: A full-length picture of the Brazil-nut Tree at the UM Main Library. Top, right: Its bright green leaves are oblong and leathery, with wavy margins. Bottom, right: The bark is greyish-brown with deep, longitudinal fissures.

Our Brazil-nut Tree has never fruited, which is for good reason. These trees can only be pollinated by certain species of bees which are large enough to pry open the heavy hood on the flower. Even after pollination, the fruits require 15 months to ripen.

Brazil-nut Trees were introduced as a plantation crop in Malaysia, which failed due to low pollination. Besides UM, you can find some specimens at FRIM and at the Perdana Botanic Garden (formerly known as the Lake Gardens).

Above: Flora Neotropica Monograph 21(2). Illustration by B. Angell. A. & B. The petals of the flowers are tightly curled, and the hood is swept inwards. C. Cross section of the ovary. D. Ovary and calyx (sepals of a flower). E. Fruit, with tough skin that resists breakage even after falling from a great height. F. Seed. G. Seedling.

The fruit can weigh up to 1.5 kg each, and have to be broken open with machetes or saws. Each fruit contains up to 25 seeds, known as Brazil-nuts, which are about 3 to 4 cm. Because of the high oil content, you can even burn them as small candles! In any case, they are delicious as snacks or in breakfast cereals.

Above: A close up of the Brazil-nut Tree trunk at the UM Main Library reveals a perfect hole - the work of a woodpecker, perhaps?

Happiest when surrounded by books, Vanessa Ting finds herself thriving in the no-less-fascinating world of conservation biology. This mostly involves exponential (learning and topographical) curves, tagging behind ardent, energetic botanists and zoologists. She can be reached at vcc.ting@gmail.com.

#treesofum #vanessating #bertholletiaexcelsa #brazilnuttree #ummainlibrary #articles

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