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Sea Poison Tree
Barringtonia asiatica

Fish Poison Tree, Putat Laut/Butun/Butong/Pertun (Malay)

A large tree that grows on sandy and rocky shores, it has large leaves held in rosettes at the ends of branches. The young leaves are a beautiful bronze with pinkish veins. Old leaves turn yellowish.

close up of flowerThe flowers are delightful puff balls of white stamens tipped with pink. They open at night and attract large moths and nectar-feeding bats with their heavy scent.

The next morning, the flower stamens are usually found strewn beneath the tree.

The fruits have a typical lantern shape and float on the water. The fruit can survive drifting on the sea for long distances and for periods of up to 2 years. They were among the first seeds to arrive on the island of Krakatau when it first emerged out of the sea.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Mangrove associate. Grows up to 25m.

Bark: Grey, smooth.

Leaves: Large, simple, egg-shaped, shiny.

Flowers: Night-blooming flowers appear on a long spike from the centre of a leaf group. Flower is a puff ball of stamens with four small white petals.

Fruits: Lantern-shaped, floats on water. Green at first, turning brown when ripe.

Status in Singapore: Common.

World distribution: Coasts of the Indian to Western Pacific Oceans from Africa, India to Southeast Asia and Polynesia.
reddish young leaves
young green fruits
Classification: Family Lecythidaceae. World 2 mangrove associated species.
ripe fruit opened The outermost layer of the fruit wall is green turning brown when ripe. The middle layer is spongy and contains air sacs to help the fruit float. The innermost layer is hard and thick to protect the seed (the layers of spongy and hard coverings are somewhat similar to the coconut).

Uses: All parts of the tree contain, saponin, a poison. The seeds and other parts of the plant are pounded, pulped or grated to release the poison and used to stun fish in freshwater streams. The floating seeds are sometimes used as fishing floats. A colourful shady tree, it is commonly planted as a roadside tree in Singapore.

Traditional medicinal uses: The heated leaves are used to treat stomach ache and rheumatism (Philippines); seeds are used to get rid of intestinal worms.

Role in the habitat: It is among the plants that host the magnificent Atlas Moth.

  To buy these references & others, visit
Nature's Niche
  • Ivan Polunin, "Plants and Flowers of Singapore", Times Editions, 1987 (p. 116: description, habitat, distribution, photo).
  • Wee Yeow Chin, "A Guide to Medicinal Plants", Singapore Science Centre, 1992 (p. 24: description, chemical compounds, uses).
  • Wee Yeow Chin, "A Guide to the Wayside Trees of Singapore", Singapore Science Centre, 1989 (p. 84-85: description, habitat, photo).
  • Wee Yeow Chin, "The City and the Forest: Plant Life in Urban Singapore", Richard Corbett, Singapore University Press, 1986 (p. 72: description, uses).
  • E. J. H. Corner, "Wayside Trees of Malaya: Vol I", Malayan Nature Society, 4th ed., 1997 (p. 391: description, habit).
  • Dr E Soepadmo (ed.), "The Encyclopaedias of Malaysia: Plants", Fruit and Seed Dispersal by Dr E Soepadmo, Editions Didier Millet, 1998 (p. 123: traditional medicinal uses).
By Ria Tan, 2001