There is something mysterious about the Powder-puff tree. Although associated with mangroves it can thrive with dry feet in the garden, exuding a powerful pungency when in flower, it has a lush subtropical presence yet remains self-contained.

As I write this, the sweetly musty smell of the Powder-puff Tree (Barringtonia racemosa) pervades the house. The scent is strongest at night, apparently attracting moths and bats to the nectar, not that I have witnessed any bats feeding at this tree, but then again I haven’t sat up to watch.

Flowers of the Powder-puff tree in a wildlife-friendly garden in South Africa

The showy flowers with elegant pink-tinged stamens grow on long racemes that can be up to a meter in length. This year, on our tree the racemes are longer and more numerous than they have been in previous years – I guess that might have something to do with the quantity and timing of the seasonal rains.

Racemes with opening buds of the Powder-puff Tree (Barringtonia racemosa).

These buds, fairly evenly spaced along the long racemes, are just starting to open

Flowers on long racemes of the Powder-puff Tree in a garden in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

The flowers on each raceme open and wither in succession. Some flowers wither on the tree, but others fall to the ground, creating a short-lived dainty carpet

5 Barringtonia-racemosa

The long stamens form dainty sprays in powder-puff fashion. Flowers on trees that are in the sun are more deeply pink in colour than on trees in dense coastal forests, where the shaded flowers can be almost white

Close-up of the stamens and petals of the flowers of the Powder-puff Tree (Barringtonia racemosa), South Africa

In the wild the Powder-puff Tree (Barringtonia racemosa) grows along the edges of coastal swamps, estuaries and rivers. In Southern Africa it occurs on the east coasts of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Mozambique, and also in Madagascar and it is widespread around the Indian Ocean, occurring in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, southern China, northern Australia, Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands off Japan and many Polynesian islands.

Flower and leaves of the Powder-puff Tree in a suburban garden in KwaZulu-Natal

The flowers have a certain glamour, reminding me of richly embroidered silk panels

Leaves of the Powder-puff Tree - photo taken on a rainy day in KwaZulu-Natal

The above photo was taken a few days ago when it was raining lightly. The curved racemes laden with flower buds can be seen against the lush, deeply ribbed leaves that grow in a rosette formation. Throughout the year some leaves change colour through yellow to an orangey-red before falling and drying to a tough leathery brown.

Flowers and leaves of the Powder-puff Tree in a suburban garden in KwaZulu-Natal

On the branch of the Powder-puff Tree in the photo above, there is only one raceme that sports flowers that have dropped their petals and stamens, flowers that are in full bloom and buds that are yet to open. The leaves are also in three stages, new shoots, well developed green leaves, and some changing to orangey-red before dropping

Fallen flowers of the Powder-puff Tree

As the petals and stamens are shed some, especially in wet weather, remain stuck to the inflorescences or leaves, but many fall intact to the ground as can be seen in the photo above. In the Powder-puff Tree’s natural habitat where they grow in or near water, the fallen flowers can be seen floating and drifting on the surface of the water.

A flower of the Powder-puff tree with stamens afloat, drifting on water

The photos above and below were stage-managed by me. I took one of the fallen flowers and floated it in the garden pond to show how prettily the flowers float on water, waving their tentacle-like stamens as they float, just as they so do in the tree’s natural swampy, estuarine or river habitats

Flower of the Powder-puff Tree floating in a garden pond, South Africa

Seeds or fruit and flowers of the Powder-puff Tree (Barringtonia racemosa)

In time and after the flowers have fallen, fruits, each containing a single seed, develop on the racemes (see above).

In the photo below is a small collection of fallen seeds of different ages. The seeds’ outer covering shrivels becoming dry and fibrous enabling the seeds, after they have fallen to the water in their natural habitats, to float and be carried far and wide, dispersed by the tides.

Seeds (fruits) of different ages of the Powder-puff Tree

The fruit, seeds, bark and roots of the Powder-puff Tree, containing a poisonous substance, can be pounded to be used as a fish poison. In India, one of the common names for Barringtonia racemosa is Fish-killer Tree. Extracts from the plant have also been used as an insecticide.

The tree contains chemical compounds that have pharmacological benefits, including having anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. In traditional medicines parts of the plant have several applications, such as being used to treat chicken pox or itchy skin, to treat coughs, sinusitis and bronchitis, to cure diarrhoea, and as a remedy to get rid of intestinal worms. In Southern Africa it has been used in traditional Zulu medicine to treat malaria.

Tannins can be made from the bark as well as dyes for vegetable fibres. The timber has many uses at the local level, but it is not used extensively commercially.

Ants seeking nectar on inflorescences of the Powder-Puff Tree

Ants are attracted to the nectar before the petals and stamens have dropped and also afterwards, as can be seen in the above photo. Honeybees are also attracted to the flowers

Bees attracted to the flowers of the Powder-puff Tree (Barringtonia racemosa).

I have not tried it, but the plant can be propagated from cuttings and from seeds. Perhaps I should try, as this is a beautiful tree with a neat growth habit and so we might find space for a second tree in the garden. In some countries it is planted as a street tree.

Sources:

Boon, Richard. 2010 (2nd ed.). Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa. Durban: Flora & Fauna;  Cheek, Michael. 2008. Barringtonia racemosa. PlantZAfrica. SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). http://pza.sanbi.org/barringtonia-racemosa;  Tropical Plants Database, Ken Fern. tropical.theferns.info. 2019-01-23. http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Barringtonia+racemosa

Posted by Carol

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