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Sea Hibiscus
Hibiscus tiliaceus

Baru Baru/Baru Laut (Malay)

flowering branchThis fast growing tree commonly grows along the seashore and back mangroves. In mangroves, it indicates the high water mark and the boundary between the end of salt water penetration and the beginning of freshwater swamp. It also grows in limestone and volcanic areas.

The yellow flowers open in the morning (after sunrise, about 9 am) and turn orangey brown before falling on the same evening or the following day.

Uses as food: The leaves are fed to cattle in Southeast Asia; and young leaves eaten by the Polynesians. In India, they were a famine food; mucilage and bark is eaten and stalks sucked.

Other uses: The bark contains tough fibres used for making rope and to caulk ships. The bark is stripped lengthwise from the wood and soaked in water to separate the outer bark from the smooth cream-coloured inner bark. This is dried and woven into rope. The cord has the unique property of being stronger when wet.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Mangrove associate. Grows to 15-20m.

Bark: Smooth, grey.

Leaves: Small, heart-shaped, downy underneath.

Flowers: Yellow, five petals, dark brown corolla with dark red stigma.

Fruits: Small woody furry spheres which split open to form 5 segments, releasing 3-5 small kidney shaped seeds.

Similar plant: Portia Tree (Thespesia populnea): flowers appear similar, yellow with maroon eye and also turn dull orange with age, but have yellow stigma, and stay on the tree for several days after turning brown; leaves do not have nectaries; fruits and timber are different.
Status in Singapore: Common growing wild or planted along coastal areas and back mangroves.

World distribution: Worldwide.

Classification: Family Malvaceae. World 1 mangrove associated species.
The rope is used to make a wide variety of items including fishing nets, hammocks, mats, slings, bow strings, net bags, string for sewing or making leis (flower garlands). In Tahiti and other Polynesian Islands, it is used to make "grass" skirts. The bark is also used "unprocessed" as a quick source of binding cord by hunters and farmers.

The white timber is lightweight (floats well) but tough. Thus in Hawaii, it is used to make outrigger canoes. Sometimes, young branches were trained to form the required shapes for this purpose, or bent to shape in an underground oven. The branches are stripped of bark then soaked in seawater for several weeks to discourage insects and rot. The timber is also used to make handles of axes, spears and brooms. Small pieces of wood were used as floats. It is ideal as tinder for starting fires.

Traditional medicinal uses: Leaves are used to cool fevers, soothe coughs and remove phlegm (Malaysia, Indonesia); fresh bark soaked in water is used to treat dysentery (Philippines), for chest congestion and during birth (Polynesians); fresh flowers boiled with milk is used to treat ear infections; the crushed flowers are applied to abscesses (Guam); buds chewed and swallowed for dry throat.. Slimy sap of the bark, branches and flower buds used as a mild laxative or as a lubricant in childbirth.

ant drinking from the nectarynectaries at the base of the leafRole in the habitat: The plant secretes a substance that attracts ants, not in its flowers but through its leaves. Each of three leaf veins on the under surface near the stalk have a small slit. It is from here that the substance exudes, and ants of all sizes can be seen drinking from them. Among these, are the fierce Weaver Ants (Oecophylla smaragdina), which may help keep off insect pests. Some insects that feed on the plant include the Cotton Stainer Bug (Dysdercus decussatus) that feeds on its seeds.

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  • Ivan Polunin, "Plants and Flowers of Singapore", Times Editions, 1987 (p. 116: description, habitat, distribution, photo).
  • Wee Yeow Chin, "A Guide to the Wayside Trees of Singapore", Singapore Science Centre, 1989 (p. 114: description, habitat, photo).
  • Wee Yeow Chin, "A Guide to Medicinal Plants", Singapore Science Centre, 1992 (p. 76: description, chemical compounds, uses, photo).
  • Peter K L Ng and N Sivasothi, "A Guide to the Mangroves of Singapore I: The Ecosystem and Plant Diversity", Singapore Science Centre, 1999 (p. 116: description, habit, photo; p. 41: use as cattle feed).
  • E. J. H. Corner, "Wayside Trees of Malaya: Vol II", Malayan Nature Society, 4th ed., 1997 (p. 482-483: description, habit).
  • Colin Field, "Journey among Mangroves", International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems, 1995 (p. 70: medicinal use).
By Ria Tan, 2001