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Time to pick the seeds of Magdalene’s fingernail

April 23, 2011

Today I blog about one of those anonymous trees that inhabit the Thai landscape, and which are dismissed as ‘shrubs’ when a land developer moves in. To create a love and respect for these anonymous greens, I act as their envoy.

Do you remember the blog about a funny leafhopper with long waxy threads? It is connected with a certain tree which grows in abundance near Dokmai Garden, and in fact also within the boundaries of the garden. That tree has a wrinkled grey bark like elephant skin, not too different from hog plum (Spondias pinnata, Anacardiaceae). Near the base of the trunk the bark becomes more squarish. Unlike the hog plum, the leaves are single, not compound, and they are glabrous, almost leathery. One characteristic is the short red leaf stalk (petiole). Another conspicuous feature during Easter are the long (12 cm) woody fruits, distinctly angled and resembling those of the banana peel tree (Pterospermum acerifolium, Malvaceae/Sterculiaceae) although glabrous and straw coloured. Inside you will find flat seeds surrounded by a wing like a member of the Bignoniaceae family (they have compound leaves). This seed looks like a lady’s long fingernail. Since the seeds mature during Easter, and since settlers and tourists often say they need English names, we hereby launch the English name ‘Magdalene’s fingernail’. Jesus showed himself to Mary Magdalene after resurrection (Easter day) so we believe the conspicuous seeds will help you remember the name.

The scientific name is Lophopetalum wallichii in the family Celastraceae. Other members of this family are Khat (Catha edulis), Spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) and Parnassia palustris. The scientific name ‘wallichii’ is in honour of Dr Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) who was a Danish surgeon and botanist. Since the Danish were allied with the French during the Napoleon wars, Wallich was imprisoned when the British seized the Danish colony Frederiksnagore in India. He was released in 1809 because he was a learned man. He became an assistant of William Roxburgh who worked as a botanist for the East India Company in Calcutta. As a friend of Sir Stamford Raffles he participated in the design of the Singapore botanic garden. Benefactors of botany such as yourself can be immortalized by lending their names to a plant’s scientific name.

Magdalene’s fingernail grows in the dry lowlands of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and can survive fires and cutting. Its lustrous wood (trade name katbo) has been used for furniture making. The tree is known from India, Burma, Laos Cambodia and Thailand. If you know anything more about this tree, please let me know.

Eric Danell

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2011 7:40 AM

    Thanks for the picture of the seed pod of Lophopetalum wallichii. How very distinctive. Gardner et al. who provide no photo, describe it as globose, which sounds to me like a ball. How would you describe it?

    • April 23, 2011 9:55 AM

      Dear Ricky,

      Indeed I noticed Gardner described the fruit as globose. I think it was an assumption, since the fruits of related species are globose and since he has no picture of it. In the blog’s description I write that the fruit is elongated (12 cm) and angled, which is also in accordance with the eminent drawing in Flora of Thailand 10(2):178.

  2. November 7, 2012 11:28 PM

    your description is so vivid which make me having a impluse to visit Lophopetalum. However, i noted that the seeds of your photo are flat. that means these kind of the seeds are not ripe or did not develop. this will make the fruit lookiing like elongated and angled. this is just my opinion.

    • November 8, 2012 5:59 AM

      The seeds are normal! In e.g. the jacaranda family (Bignoniaceae) many seeds are flat like paper, making them easily dispersed by wind.

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