The Indian Skunk Tree
The Skunk Tree is a large, fast growing, deciduous species, bearing purple-red blossoms
The purple-red blossoms of the Skunk Tree
THE BOTANICAL name for the Skunk Tree, Sterculia foetida, is derived from the Latin word Sterculius meaning dung or manure and foetida refers to the foul odour emitted by the tree when it is in bloom.
It is a large, fast growing, deciduous tree, bearing foul-smelling, purple-red blossoms and is found in several parts of the city and along the pavement leading to the Tidel Park.
The flowers are formed in a drooping spray of panicles, imparting a disagreeable, putrid stench and hence, the telltale name.
The leaves are palmately compound with around 5-7 leaflets, borne at the end of a long stalk.
The colour of the flowers is that of the sepals and not of the petals as is the case with most flowers. Indeed the flowers are apetalous, they are unisexual, either pistillate (female) or staminate (male), though occasional bi-sexual flowers are found.
By April, large fruits, about the size of a man's fist appear, they are woody and boat-shaped, held on a hanging stalk.
Eventually they break along the seam and open just wide enough for the bright red seeds to fall out. The seeds, called Java olives or stinking beans, are eaten raw or roasted, giving it the name wild almonds.
They yield a bland fatty oil, with a high percentage of sterculic acid, owing to which, the oil on heating to 240 degree C, polymerises to produce a solid rubber-like jelly, which may be used for making rubber substitutes.
The seed oil is also suitable for culinary purposes, but is mostly used as an illuminant and in making soaps.
The tree exudes a gum, which can be used for bookbinding and similar purposes.
It appears that the economic importance of the tree outweighs the stench that emanates from it. Therefore, it is worthy of a place in your garden or courtyard.
PAULINE DEBORAH & RIDLING WALLER
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