The tembusu (Cyrtophyllum fragrans) is a hardwood tree native to Singapore, Southeast Asia and many parts of tropical Asia.1
A slow-growing and evergreen tree, the tembusu can reach heights of 30 to 55 m.2 Its bark is dark brown and deeply fissured.3 The juvenile plant has a conical crown, and matures into a towering, irregularly shaped tree.4
The oval-shaped, light-green leaves of the tembusu are about 5 to 11 cm in length and wavy at the edges.5 Tembusu flowers bloom twice a year – usually in May or June and October or November – and are pollinated by butterflies and nocturnal moths.6 The clusters of trumpet-shaped blooms emerge creamy white, turning yellow with age and emit a fragrance that intensifies in the late evenings.7 Its fruits are tiny, round berries that may take more than three months to mature.8 They turn from orange to red as they ripen and are eaten by birds and bats.9
Found in southern Myanmar through Southeast Asia to New Guinea, this hardy species is tolerant of poorly aerated, compact clay soils and fairly resistant to pests and diseases.10 In Singapore, apart from Tanglin where the Singapore Botanic Gardens is located, tembusu trees can also be found in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, Kent Ridge and on Pulau Ubin.11
The wood of the tembusu is hard, heavy, highly durable and termite-resistant. These qualities make its timber suitable for a variety of uses, including heavy construction, railroads, bridges, boats, wharves, parquet flooring, furniture and chopping boards.12
The tembusu has medicinal properties as well: Its bark can be made into a decoction to treat fever and dysentery, and its leaves and twigs can also be similarly prepared to treat severe diarrhoea.13
As it can grow to a large size and cast excellent shade, the tembusu has been identified as a suitable species for planting in parks, open spaces and along roadsides with large verges.14 The tembusu was selected for planting in the early years of Singapore’s greening movement in the 1960s for its fragrant flowers.15
The species has also been used as a metaphor for relations between the state and civil society in the 1990s. In a 1998 speech, ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh likened the government under the premiership of Goh Chok Tong to the tembusu for its tall and strong qualities but with a canopy smaller than the banyan tree, which was used to describe the preceding Lee Kuan Yew era. The smaller canopy of the tembusu allows other plants – a reference to civil society – to grow around it.16
In May 2002, beating six other contenders such as the sea fig, the tembusu emerged as the “unofficial national tree” of Singapore in an informal poll conducted by the Nature Society (Singapore).17
Tembusu tree icon
There are currently 10 tembusu trees that have been designated as “heritage trees” under the Heritage Tree Scheme launched in 2002.18
The tembusu located on the lawn overlooking Swan Lake at the Singapore Botanic Gardens was one of the first to be recognised as a “heritage tree”.19 Believed to have existed before the establishment of the gardens in 1859, this specimen stands at a height of 32 m and has a girth spanning 6 m in circumference.20 The iconic tree sports a distinctive lateral branch that grows close to the ground.21 This unique feature has made the tree immensely popular among visitors and a favourite spot for photography.22
Its image graces the back of the Singapore five-dollar note in the portrait series issued in 1999.23 The tree was chosen to exemplify Singapore’s aspiration of becoming a “garden city”.24 Moreover, its sturdiness and spreading canopy were thought to embody strength, resilience and a continuous drive for progress.25
Over the years, measures have been taken to maintain the health of the tree. A solid wooden T-bar support was installed in 1992 to relieve pressure from the limb as it grew outwards.26 The tree was given a new pair of props in 2003.27 These were replaced in 2014 with a new dynamic system specially designed to provide support without restricting the movement and growth of the tree.28 A fence was erected in 2013 to deter visitors from treading on the area around the tree, so as to allow its roots to recover from the effects of soil compaction caused by years of heavy human traffic.29
Old scientific name: Fagraea fragrans30
Family name: Loganiaceae31
Janice Loo and Lee-Khoo Guan Fong
1. “Cyrtophyllum fragrans (Roxb.) DC,” National Parks Board, n.d.; A. N. Rao and Wee Yeow Chin, Singapore Trees (Singapore: Singapore Institute of Biology, 1989), 161. (Call no. RSING 582.16095957 RAO)
2. National Parks Board, “Cyrtophyllum fragrans (Roxb.) DC.”
3. Tee Swee Ping et al eds., Trees of Our Garden City: A Guide to the Common Trees of Singapore (Singapore: National Parks Board, 2009), 97. (Call no. RSING 582.16095957 TRE)
4. Tee et al., Trees of Our Garden City, 96.
5. Shee Zhi Qiang et al., Tall Tales: Singapore Botanic Gardens Heritage Trees Trail Guide (Singapore: Singapore Botanic Gardens, 2014), 60. (Call no. RSING 582.16095957 SHE)
6. “Heritage Tress,” Singapore Botanic Gardens, n.d.; National Parks Board, “Cyrtophyllum fragrans (Roxb.) DC”; Wee Yeow Chin, Tropical Trees and Shrubs: A Selection for Urban Planting (Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing, 2003), 103. (Call no. RSING 582.16095957 WEE)
7. Tee et al., Trees of Our Garden City, 96.
8. Tee et al., Trees of Our Garden City, 97.
9. National Parks Board, “Cyrtophyllum fragrans (Roxb.) DC.”
10. Shee et al., Tall Tales, 60.
11. National Parks Board, “Cyrtophyllum fragrans (Roxb.) DC”; Wee Yeow Chin, A Guide to the Wayside Trees of Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Science Centre, 1989), 123. (Call no. RSING 582.16095957 WEE)
12. Tee et al., Trees of Our Garden City, 96.
13. National Parks Board, “Cyrtophyllum fragrans (Roxb.) DC.”
14. Tee et al., Trees of Our Garden City, 97; Parks and Recreation Department, Singapore, A Guide to Tree Planting (Singapore: Ministry of National Development, 1981), ii. (Call no. RSING 635.977 GUL)
15. “Mission and History,” National Parks Board, accessed 8 June 2015.
16. Koh Buck Song, “More Space in Tembusu Era,” Straits Times, 8 May 1998, 55. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Margaret Perry, “Crimson Sunbird Tops Bird Poll,” Straits Times, 31 May 2002, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Heritage Trees,” National Parks Board, accessed 4 Clara Chow, “Trunk Services,” Straits Times, 29 September 2002, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Shee et al., Tall Tales, 60; Rosalyn Lim, “Memories Live On in These Old Trees,” Today, 24 September 2002, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Bonnie Tinsley, Gardens of Perpetual Summer: The Singapore Botanic Gardens (Singapore: Singapore Botanic Gardens, 2009), 162 (Call no. RSING 580.735957 TIN); Singapore Botanic Gardens, “Heritage Trees.”
21. Tinsley, Gardens of Perpetual Summer, 157.
22. National Parks Board, “World’s First Dynamic System to Support Heritage Tree at the Singapore Botanic Gardens,” press release, 26 May 2014.
23. Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore, The Presidential Notes, vol. 2 (Singapore: SNP, 1999), 13. (Call no. RSING q769.5595957 PRE)
24. Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore, Presidential Notes, 31–32.
25. Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore, Presidential Notes, 31–32.
26. Wong Kwai Chow, “Old Tree Gets a Stick-Up,” Straits Times, 18 September 1992, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. National Parks Board, “World’s First Dynamic System.”
28. National Parks Board, “World’s First Dynamic System.”
29. National Parks Board, “World’s First Dynamic System.”
30. National Parks Board, “Cyrtophyllum fragrans (Roxb.) DC”; “Treespotting,” Straits Times, 4 November 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Rao and Wee, Singapore Trees, 161.
32. T. C. Whitmore, Tree Flora of Malaya, vol. 2 (London: Longman, 1973), 273. (Call no. RSEA 582.1609595 MAL)
33. James V. LaFrankie, Jr, Trees of Tropical Asia: An Illustrated Guide to Diversity (Philippines: Black Tree Publications, 2010), 647. (Call no. RSING 582.16748095 LAF)
34. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 103.
35. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 103.
36. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 103.
37. Wee, Tropical Trees and Shrubs, 103.
Ginnie Teo, “Take a Walk Up Singapore’s Hill of Fame,” Straits Times, 31 May 2002, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
Ivan Polunin, Plants and Flowers of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 1987), 122. (Call no. RSING 581.95957 POL)
Michelle Ho, “Tree’s Company,” Straits Times, 10 August 2002, 69. (From NewspaperSG)
R. E. Holttum, Gardening in the Lowlands of Malaya (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 1953), 147, 149. (Call no. RCLOS 635.09595 HOL-[RFL])
Thien “Legacy in Our Midst,” Business Times, 16 November 2000, 46. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as of 25 June 2015 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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