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Saga Seed Tree
Adenanthera pavonina

Coral Tree, Red Sandalwood, Saga (Malay)

Children love the hard red seeds and few can resist collecting the brightly coloured seeds usually littered under the tree.

seedsThe seeds can only germinate if they are scratched (scarified), boiled for one minute, or dipped in sulphuric acid. This suggests that in nature, they must be eaten and go through the digestive system of an animal before germination. The tiny flowers are said to smell vaguely like orange blossoms.
Photo from Wee YC
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Spreading rounded crown, grows up to 30m.

Leaves: Compound bipinnate. Green when young, turning yellow when old.

Flowers: Tiny, yellowish, fragrant in dense drooping rat-tail like flower heads.

Fruits: Curved hanging green pods that turn brown, coil up and split open as they ripen to reveal small bright red seeds.
young seed pod
ripe seed pod
Status in Singapore: Common wayside tree.

World distribution: Native to India and southern China, but now found throughout the tropics.

Classification: Family Leguminosae.
Uses as food: The young leaves can be cooked and eaten, but usually only during famine. The leaves were also used to supplement animal fodder, or mulched to fertilise crops. The seeds were eaten in Melanesia and Polynesia and the people there called it the "food tree". The seeds were roasted before eating. Elsewhere they are boiled. In Java, they are roasted, shelled, then eaten with rice. They are said to taste like soy bean. The raw seeds are toxic and may cause intoxication. Studies show the cooked seed to be rich in oil and proteins and easily digested by both humans and livestock.

Other uses: These attractive seeds have been used as beads in jewellery, leis and rosaries. They were also used in ancient India for weighing gold. The seeds are curiously similar in weight. Four seeds make up about one gramme. In fact the name "saga" is traced to the Arabic term for "goldsmith". In India, it is believed that a person may have as many wishes as elephants found in a saga seed. The ground seeds can produce an oil which was used as an industrial lubricant.

The hard, reddish wood is used to make cabinets, often in place of true sandalwood. With exposure to light, the wood it slowly turns purplish-red. It is also valued as firewood as it burns well. The tree resprouts new branches easily and so is not damaged by harvesting for firewood. A red dye is obtained from the wood and used by the Brahmins to make religious markings on their foreheads.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, the trees also provided shade and were planted as "nurse trees" in coffee, clove and rubber plantations.

Traditional medicinal uses: A red powder made from the wood is also used as an antiseptic paste. In Ancient Indian medicine, the ground seeds are used to treat boils and inflammations. A decoction of the leaves is used to treat gout and rheumatism. The bark was used to wash hair.

Role in the habitat: The Saga Seed Tree is believed to be able to fix nitrogen and thus help rejuvenate soils.

  • Wayne's Word: About the saga seed and with a photo of the magical wishing saga seed with 12 elephants in it!
  • Tropilab (exporter of Suriname's medicinal plants): with drawing of leaf and seed pods.
  • Strictly Medicinal Herb Seeds: traditional medicinal and other uses.
  • Tico Ethnobotanical Dictionary on the Laboratory of Plant Cell Genetics: traditional medicinal and other uses.
  • Winrock international NFT Highlights NFTA 96-01, January 1993 A quick guide to useful nitrogen fixing trees from around the world: detailed fact sheet on habit, habitat, distribution, uses.
  • Famine Foods compiled by Robert Freedman on the Center for New Crops & Plant Products at Purdue University: brief description.
  • Science Net on the Singapore Science Center website: fact sheet on habit, uses particularly as food.
  To buy these references & others, visit
Nature's Niche
  • Ivan Polunin, "Plants and Flowers of Singapore", Times Editions, 1987 (p. 122: description, habitat, distribution, photo).
  • Wee Yeow Chin, "A Guide to the Wayside Trees of Singapore", Singapore Science Centre, 1989 (p. 35: description, habitat, photo).
  • E. J. H. Corner, "Wayside Trees of Malaya: Vol I", Malayan Nature Society, 4th ed., 1997 (p. 449-50: description, habit, distribution).
By Ria Tan, 2001