THE CANNONBALL TREE - Couroupita guianensis

Image credit - Juan Carlos Piola

Native to the rainforests of Central and South America, the cannonball tree -Couroupita guianensis, is a large deciduous tree from the Lecythidaceae family known primarily for its impressive and usual shaped flowers.  The species was given the name Couroupita guianensis in 1775 by the French botanist J. F. Aublet and is a member of the Brazil nut family.

Although Couroupita guianensis is best known for its cannonball sized fruit, it also produces the most incredible flowers.

The flowers are large, up to 8 inches wide, and often brightly coloured. Each bloom has six petals in shades of pink. They are  red at the base of each petal and yellowish toward the tips. As you would expect there is a ring of stamens at the centre, but unusually there is an arrangement to the stamens which has been modified into a hood.

The highly scented flowers can be produced in huge numbers and are produced in large bunches that can be up to 12 feet long. Some trees flower so profusely that the entire trunk can be buried in flowers! One tree can bear 1000 flowers per day.

The blooms are strongly scented, especially at night and in the early morning. While they do not produce any noticeable nectar, they still attract pollinating insects, such as the large black carpenter bees, to collect the pollen as a source of food. However the peculiar structure of the flower has evolved to attract pollinating bats.

The bats will happily eat the pollen, anthers, and stamens of the flower, however the flower produces two types of pollen, fertile pollen from the ring stamens and sterile pollen from the hood structure. As the bats feed on the easily accessible sterile pollen it picks up large amounts of the fertile pollen on its head and rough fur. So much pollen can be collected in this way that when the bat visits a second tree, fertile pollen is easily deposited on the next flower ensuring pollination.

The large woody fruit which gives the species its common name of Cannonball tree is very spherical and can measure up to 10 inches wide. The fruit takes up to a year to mature in most areas, sometimes as long as 18 months, and can contain as many as 500 seeds. When the fruit has fully ripened it will fall from the tree and often crack open when it hits the ground. The seeds are embedded in a six-segmented, fleshy white pulp that turns to a bluish-green colour and emits an unpleasant aroma when exposed to the air. Even so the cannonball shell is extremely tough and will usually remain mostly intact until an animal such as a peccary finds it and breaks it open.

The fruit is edible but the white flesh has such an unpleasant smell that it will put most people off. Be that as it may, there are many medicinal uses that have been found for the plant. Native Amazonian peoples use extracts of several parts of the tree to treat a variety of conditions such as hypertension, tumours, general pain, and inflammation. It has also been used to treat the common cold, stomach ache, skin conditions and wounds, malaria, and even toothache.

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