1 March 2020

The Cannonball Tree

It is the case with a number of plants that they are given popular names which reflect how they look or what they do.  So it is with the Cannonball Tree whose fruit is so large that they look like cannonballs.  Not only that, when they fall to the ground a large noise is created similar to... you guessed it.

The fruit will of course fall when it is good and ready.  So you will not find a Cannonball Tree near a public pathway or a road.  One of these fruit, weighing in at several pounds and often up to ten inches in diameter could kill you.   So, you really want to avoid standing directly under them when they are in fruit.

The tree (scientific name Couroupita guianensis is native to the south of the Caribbean and to the northern parts of South America.  Yet it has also been growing in India for at least two to three thousand years and the jury is out whether it is native there or somehow the trees were transported across the continents several thousand years ago.

This evergreen tree is something of a curiosity to say the least not least because its large brown fruit – its cannonballs – seem to be growing from the trunk of the tree.  The flowers too are something of an oddity, appearing in large vividly colored bunches up to twelve feet in length.  They have a wonderful scent – unlike the fruit.

The oddities do not stop there.  The flowers have no nectar but they do have pollen and as such pollination is done mainly by bees.  The pollen comes in two varieties as well, one which is fertile and another which has no obvious reproductive benefit.  The fertile pollen is produced on stamens which rub against the back of bees and is so carried on to another tree. The infertile pollen is bee food.

Take a look at the flower above.  The bee crawls in and heads for the infertile stamens - they are the ones on the oval ring.  The fertile ones which are on the longer ones directly opposite then rub on to the bee and are carried away with it.  In this was the Cannonball tree is allied to the Brazil Nut in as much as they have the same structure to the male part of the flower – the only two species of tree in the world to have such a structure.

The flowers (and so too the fruit) do not grow directly from the trunk but instead on a thick extrusion which itself develops from the trunk.  At the flower stage these extrusions seem way too huge for the flowers, which although large do not need such a thick and strong support.  It is only when the fruit appear and grow that their strength is obviously needed.

The common name for the tree is of course only a few hundred years old but the sound of the fruit cracking open on the ground made a name change obvious.  When the fruit cracks it lets out what can only be described as a foul stench.  Passing animals are attracted to this odor and when the seeds pass through their  digestive system they will hopefully land on fertile soil and a new tree will take root.

Anyone who lives in an environment where there are coconut palms will know that it is not a good idea to deliberately plant them near roads or paths. Fate can come knocking on to the head of an unwitting individual should they happen to be in the wrong (or is that right?) place when a fruit falls.

An odd tree, for sure.  But one thing is for definite. If you ever find yourself standing underneath one, keep one eye on the tree at all times.

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