Morning sunshine streams through the foliage of the Monkey Pot tree.
Sometime last year, The RIMBA Project took a walk around the UM campus with botanist Dr Sugumaran, who had been schooling us on the finer points of tree identification. Rounding the corner from Lingkaran Warisan into Lingkungan Budi, however, we came across a couple of trees that looked somewhat familiar, but evaded certainty on our part. The leaves resembled the Angsana, but the foliage was all wrong.
“Oh that? That’s the Monkey Pot,” said Dr Sugumaran. “Have you seen the fruit? There should be some nearby.” (We lesser beings called The RIMBA Project looked cursorily around and pronounced the lack of fruits in the surrounding area.)
“That’s impossible,” said Dr Sugumaran, and in the next minute, disappeared from view. What was a casual look around for Monkey Pot fruit became a frantic hunt for the botanist and Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden coordinator. His voice reached out, faint and muffled, in response to our search-and-rescue calls, and presently he emerged from some bushes behind the trees, next to the Ambang Asuhan Jepun complex.
“See, I told you there were fruits. There has to be some underneath the trees somewhere,” he said with satisfaction, oblivious to our discomposure. The fruits in question were the size of small pots, with an opening at the base. The lid of the fruit would fall away when ripe, scattering the seeds within. During his undergraduate days, Dr Sugumaran would spend his evenings whittling down the sides and top until a decent pencil-holder emerged.
(Left)One of the two Monkey Pot trees in front of Ambang Asuhan Jepun. (Top right) Empty monkey pot fruit. (Bottom right) Freshly-fallen flowers of the Lecythis ollaria.
The Monkey Pot tree (Lecythis ollaria) is a South American tree that is a relative of the Brazil-nut tree. The large tree can grow up to 35 metres, or the height of a ten-storey building. It grows well in tropical lowland areas, and prefers deep soil and full sun. It was introduced into Malaysia mid-20th century, and is currently classified as Least Concern under the IUCN Red List.
It is a finely-shaped, shady tree, with warty trunk and branches. The leaves are oval and arranged alternately on the branches. The flowers are white, but it is the fruits that give the tree its moniker—sometimes used to trap monkeys (presumably in South America), whereby a monkey who places its hand inside the fruit to grab hold of a bait, finds itself unable to withdraw its hand unless it releases the bait.
The Monkey Pot is a close relative of the Brazil-nut Tree, which explains the similarity in the shape of the flowers, which have thick hoods.
The seeds are edible, with an soft, creamy texture high in oil. They may contain high traces of selenium if the tree is planted in selenium-rich soil, which when ingested, will cause acute hair loss together with nausea and vomiting. However, the seeds usually disappear long before the fruit falls off the tree.
If you’d like to see the Monkey Pot tree up close, head over to the green patch in front of Ambang Asuhan Jepun, and you might find one or two Monkey Pots of your own if you’re lucky.
Empty monkey pots on the Monkey Pot tree.
All photographs by Benjamin Ong.
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