Can a person love a tree? RIMBA student volunteer Nor Afiza bt Rahman definitely thinks so, as she describes her favourite Rain Tree: ‘When you stand underneath and look up, you feel that it is so majestic. That is how you recognise a Rain Tree.’
You may find this description subjective, but the Rain Tree (Albizia saman) does indeed have magnificent spreading branches that stretch across roads to provide shade, and make prominent landmarks in many public spaces.
This tree is native to northern tropical South America where it is known as Saman, giving rise to its specific name (the genus name honours Filippo del Albizi, an 18th-century botanist). It has been widely cultivated and naturalised in Malaysia since the colonial era.
Due to its wide, umbrella-shaped crown, it is never found in dense forest as it requires much sunlight. The spreading leaflets provide good shade in full sun but fold up at dusk or before a rainstorm, allowing rainwater or dew to settle.
This gives rise to its common name Rain Tree—the grass always grows greener under this tree! So do many epiphytes that enjoy its microclimate, as well as the scaly bark that provides crevices for roots. Many urban Rain Trees are festooned with huge birds’ nest ferns and wild orchids.
The Rain Tree is also used as a shade tree for plantation crops and grazing animals. The leaves (bipinnate, with squarish leaflets) are used for animal fodder and make excellent compost. The tassel-like flowers are dark pink, with white centres, giving way to black, leathery fruits that are oblong in shape and highly nutritious, also used as animal fodder.
In UM, you can find an imposing individual outside PASUM, and another one at the roundabout outside the KL Gate.
All photographs by Benjamin Ong
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