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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 10, 2006

Blame those skunk-tree flowers for foul odor

By Winnie Singeo

Once the flowering season is over for skunk trees, the plant produces scentless fruits that split open and spill seeds onto the ground.

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Just how bad can a skunk-tree smell, anyway? Here's a clue: the tree's scientific name is Sterculia foetida. In Latin, stercus means "dung," and foetidus means "stinking."

The answer: The heavy, musky smell is nauseating. Just ask visitors and passersby along Nu'uanu Avenue, bordering Foster Botanical Garden.

The offending odor comes from the flowers of the skunk tree. The five-part blooms are yellowish to wine-red, about an inch across, and cluster close to branch tips. Peak flowering time is usually around late January through March, although this year it arrived early.

The good news is that once the flowering season is over, the stench disappears everyone can breathe easy!

Flowering now done, the tree at Foster Botanical Garden is producing scentless, attractive fruits. They are in one to five pear-shaped segments (called follicles), 3 to 4 inches long and 2 to 3 inches wide. Woody and fibrous, the green fruits quickly develop into an eye-catching, bright red, then dry to a brownish-black. As they ripen, the fruits split open along a seam, revealing many elliptical, inch-long, pearly-blue seeds that spill out onto the ground.

The oily seeds are used for lighting, lubricants, soap-making and, reportedly can be eaten as a famine food. According to some sources, however, the seeds may contain a toxic substance if not properly prepared. The tree exudes a gum that is used for bookbinding and similar uses. Seeds also are used to make jewelry.

The leaves are thought to have a number of medicinal uses as a sedative, diuretic, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory agent.

The skunk tree, sometimes called Java olive, poon tree and tropical almond, is native to tropical Asia and Australia, and grows (relatively quickly) in dry, lowland areas. It can reach a height of 100 feet.

On a small, low-lying coral atoll off Java, Indonesia, the skunk tree is an important roosting site for flying foxes (a type of bat). Flying foxes and insect pollinators feed on the nectar of skunk trees and other plants. Possibly as a result of this diet, it has been mentioned that flying foxes smell like the flowers of the skunk tree. Large birds such as the toucan have been observed feasting on the seeds but I haven't found any mention of their personal odor!

Winnie Singeo is director of the Honolulu botanical gardens. Reach her at hbg@honolulu.gov or 522-7060. Foster Botanical Garden, 50 N. Vineyard Blvd., is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Christmas and New Year's Day.