Couroupita guianensis, known by a variety of common names including cannonball tree, is a deciduous tree in the family Lecythidaceae, which also includes the Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) and Paradise nut Lecythis zabucajo. It is native to the rainforests of Central and South America, and it is cultivated in many other tropical areas throughout the world because of its beautiful, fragrant flowers and large, interesting fruits. There are medicinal uses for many parts of Couroupita guianensis, and the tree has cultural and religious significance in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia.
Couroupita guianensis is a tree that reaches heights of up to 35 metres (110 ft). The leaves, which occur in clusters at the ends of branches, are usually 8 to 31 centimeters (3 to 12 inches) long, but can reach lengths of up to 57 centimeters (22 inches). The flowers are born in racemes up to 80 centimeters (31 inches) long. Some trees flower profusely until the entire trunk is covered with racemes. One tree can hold as many as 1000 flowers per day. The flowers are strongly scented, and are especially fragrant at night and in the early morning. They are up to 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) in diameter, with six petals, and are typically brightly colored, with the petals ranging from shades of pink and red near the bases to yellowish toward the tips. There are two areas of stamens: a ring of stamens at the center, and an arrangement of stamens that have been modified into a hood. The fruits are spherical with a woody shell and reach diameters of up to to 25 centimeters (10 inches), which give the species the common name "cannonball tree". Smaller fruits may contain about 65 seeds, while large ones can hold as many as 550. One tree can bear 150 fruits. The fruits take up to a year to mature in most areas, sometimes as long as 18 months.
Scientific and common names
The tree was named Couroupita guianensis by the French botanist Jean Baptiste Christophore Fusée Aublet in 1755. Common names in other languages include many translations of the English cannonball tree. Common names include macacarecuia (Portuguese), coco sachapura (Colombia, Panama), bala de cañón (Costa Rica, Panama), kanonskogelboom (Dutch), arbre à boulet de canon (French), kouroupitoumou (French Guiana), nagkeshar (Bengali), Nagalinga Pushpa (Kannada), Nagalingam or Lingam (Tamil), నాగమల్లి Nagamalli (Telugu), sala (Indonesia), granadillo de las huacas (Panama), ayahuma (Peru), and boskalebas (Suriname). It is also called Naaga danthee in Malayalam and Nagakeshara ନାଗକେଶର in Odia.
Although the flowers lack nectar, they are very attractive to bees, which come for the pollen. The flowers produce two types of pollen: fertile pollen from the ring stamens, and sterile pollen from the hood structure. The pollinators must work their way between the two areas of stamens as they gather the pollen. The carpenter bee Xylocopa brasilianorum is a common pollinator of cultivated trees in Rio de Janeiro, just outside the tree's native range. Other carpenter bees such as Xylocopa frontalis, as well as wasps, flower flies, and bumblebees, are also known visit the flowers.
The seeds are dispersed by animals that feed on the fruits. When the fruits fall to the ground, the hard, woody shell usually cracks open, exposing the pulp and seeds. Fruits that remain whole may be broken open by animals such as pecarries. Many animals feed on the pulp and seeds, including peccaries, the paca, and domestic chickens and pigs. The seeds are covered with trichomes which may protect them as they pass through the animals' digestive systems.
There are many medicinal uses for the plant. Native Amazonians use extracts of several parts of the tree to treat hypertension, tumors, pain, and inflammation. It has been used to treat the common cold, stomachache, skin conditions and wounds, malaria, and toothache. The fruit pulp is rubbed on sick dogs to cure them of mange. Laboratory tests show that extracts of the plant have some antimicrobial activity and inhibit the formation of biofilms.
According to Buddhist tradition, Maya held onto the branch of a blossoming sal tree (Shorea robusta) while she was giving birth to the Lord Buddha. Because of this, the sal tree is revered by many Buddhist people around the world. For reasons that remain unclear, after C. guianensis was introduced from Guyana to a botanical garden in Sri Lanka in 1881, the tree was mistakenly believed to be Shorea robusta and has been planted around many Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
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