Yellow Saraca

Cycled past some yellow saraca trees on Sunday. The yellow flowers grow like fans encircling the old tree trunk.

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Apparently the scientific name of this tree is saraca thaipingensis and is native to Peninsula Malaysia: see footnote. Native? That little piece of information piqued my interest. Many “naturalised” plants are so commonplace and vastly reproduced in this part of the world that one wouldn’t have thought they were originally foreign and non-native: the frangipani and bougainvillea that are so ubiquitous in Singapore and Malaysia today came from the Americas; other “foreign” plants like rubber and palm oil have taken such a strong hold in this region out of sheer might of industrialist will, but they originally came from Brazil and West Africa. Globalisation existed long before the term was coined. Coincidentally I recently had a chat with a landscape architect. It is not surprising to learn that Singapore tries to bring in interesting exotic variants but that doesn’t mean the same results can be achieved here, in a different environment. The distinct vibrant colours of the frangipanis of Bali island can’t be replicated here, probably because of the lack of fertile volcanic soil. Maybe making the most of what works well best in one’s own native environment is the way to go.

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Apart from being native to this part of the world, here are other fun facts about the yellow saraca:

1. The saraca is unusual in that the flowers grow out of the tree trunks and branches rather than the leaf axil.

2. It belongs to the legume family (scientifically known as fabaceae/leguminosae), i.e. it grows pods.

3. The tree, thaipingensis, is named after Taiping town in Perak.

4. It’s been said that its roots can be used to make the handle of parang(machete). I am not too sure if this is true. The roots seem wasteful to extract from a tree this size.

5. The chinese name for it (无忧树) which some have translated as “sorrow-less” tree; “free from worries” is likely to be a more proximate translation. The name is probably a distant derivation from the mystical associations with its Indian cousin, the saraca asoca species.

Footnote: from Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research

Saraca thaipingensis

Description

This medium sized, evergreen tree with a wide-spreading crown grows to a height of 7 m or more. Leaves are simple pinnate, large, with up to 8 pairs of opposite, 20-40 x 6-12 cm leaflets but without a terminal one. Young leaves are cream-coloured, hanging limply in tassels for a few days before they stiffen and turn green. Flowers 1-2 cm across, faintly fragrant, in dense bunches that arise from the trunk and main branches. They are light pinkish yellow turning deep yellow with a dark crimson eye spot which darkens to blood-red. Most of the flowers in a cluster are functionally male, the others bisexual. Pods are large, 30-45 x 6-10 cm, thin, flat and leathery. They turn purple with maturity, splitting into two coiled halves to expose the flat, black seeds.

Distribution

Native to Peninsular Malaysia, cultivated in a number of tropical countries.

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