The Tembusu (Cytrophyllum fragrans) is a very important tree to our neighbours down south. An old and regal individual in the Singapore Botanic Garden has been declared a Heritage Tree, and is immortalised in the Singaporean five-dollar note. On the other hand, we have many of these very special trees lining our streets and public spaces—it’s time to get to know them!
This medium-sized tree (up to 30 metres) is extremely slow-growing. It usually flowers after the dry season, although the flowers take up to four months to form, usually appearing around April or May.
After the buds appear, it takes several weeks for the creamy-white flowers to open—always at sunset—although unlike most ‘night dreams’, they last for several days and give off a sweet, strong fragrance akin to jasmine. In fact, the specific name ‘fragrans’ refers to this singular trait, which most probably serves to attract night moths as pollinators. Strangely enough, the fallen flowers have a sour, rotting smell, which probably accounts for its local name (‘busu’ is Malay for stinky).
After flowering is over, the fruits require more than three months to mature. These are tiny, bright green berries that ripen to orange and red. These pulpy fruits are the favourite of bats and flying-foxes, which are reported to descend in hordes to gorge on them, some even travelling from as far as Sumatera. Seeds from their droppings germinate easily, but require a long time to grow.
The Tembusu is very easily recognised by its deeply fissured bark, which can be either grey or dark-brown in colour. The narrow oval (elliptic) leaves are glossy green, arranged in closely-set spirals, which cause the small branches to bend downwards. This explains the genus name Cyrtophyllum (Greek ‘kyrtos’ for bend, and ‘phyllum’ for leaf). The foliage is thin and light, giving it a lacy appearance.
This is a very hardy tree that is able to withstand pollution, which is why it has been a tree of choice for streets and road dividers, although it is most comfortable in swampy areas or clay soil. The wood is hard and durable, and is used for construction and furniture. A decoction of the bark can be used against fever, while the leaves can be used to relieve severe diarrhoea.
You can find this tree all over UM if you keep your eyes peeled for the deeply-fissured bark, but two individuals can be found next to the UM Main Library (above).
All photographs by Benjamin Ong.
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