Cyprus Mail

Plant of the week: Highly poisonous tree features strongly in folk medicine

Name: Pangi (Pangium edule)

Otherwise known as: Kembang, Kepayang Tree

Habitat: A deciduous tree member of the Flacourtiaceae family, growing up to 30m in rain forests in Indonesia and Malaya. It has deep green, tri-lobed leaves and produces clusters of green/blue flowers that transform into brown cylindrical fruits that smell of onions. All parts of the tree are highly poisonous.

What does it do: Between the wars the timber taken from the tree was used to furnish barrack room floors because it was hard enough to resist damage by hob nailed boots worn by the soldiers. Pangi leaf, seeds and bark contain hydrocyanic, oleic and linoloeic acids, which makes it extremely toxic; however, the seeds form part of the staple diet of the Micronesia people, but like Manioc (Manihot esculenta) the poison is removed by the process of fermentation and the remaining pulp is nutritious and harmless. Considering the poisonous nature of the tree it features prominently in folk medicine. The village medicine men claim it is effective against ulcers, fevers, scabies and dysentery.

The natives of Papua New Guinea make capsules from the bark and seed-pods to stun fresh water fish. They also prepare a solution from the leaves to coat their skin as a barrier against tics, lice and fleas. A similar process has been used to disinfect dwellings following the death of the occupant suffering from a contagious disease.

The root yields an oil that soothes swollen joints and fuels oil lamps.

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