Walking back from a chanterelle foray (they are not ready yet) with my son on my shoulders I happened to pass a tree with some dangling green walnut-like fruits. I asked Ketsanee what they were and she said ‘samo pa’, and she added we have it. I doubted it but escorted my family back home and returned with a pole saw.
Maybe you remember my blog ‘A true framer’s market’ from October 30 last year? There was a fruit for sale and we made many guesses about what it could be. We were all wrong, we could not even pinpoint the family. It was ‘yellow myrobalan’ or ‘chebule’ (Terminalia chebula, Combretaceae)! The northern Thai names ‘ma-nae’ and ‘mak-nae’ differ from Ketsanee’s Central Thai name ‘samo’, so at the market, without the tree, she could not identify this fruit. Other English names are ‘myrobalan wood’, ‘myrobalan nut’, ‘black myrobalan’, ‘myrobalan plum’, ‘purple leaf plum’ and ‘chebulic myrobalan’. Since neither the Thai nor the English names are exact, but can be applied on many different species, we need to use the international scientific Latin name to define what we talk about.
Indeed we grow two specimens at Dokmai Garden, but our young saplings have not reached maturity yet, so I have never seen their fruits. There are different subspecies so I have to make sure we have the local wild strain now when I know where it grows.
If the chebule fruit is a cash crop, it must be tasty! Ketsanee said if you eat a fruit then the drinking water will taste sweet. I began gnawing the tiny green pulp surrounding the large stone. It was astringent with a flavour of ‘green’. I drank my water with great expectations but nothing happened. Ketsanee said I had to eat the pulp of one fruit and then wait two minutes. I did, and with some imagination the water was maybe a bit sweeter. Nived grabbed a fruit and began chewing, and exclaimed ‘aroi’ (delicious). She brought some salt and she dipped the fruit in it but I was still not impressed. Apparently my taste bulbs are malfunctioning because I thought this fruit was really poor. Maybe it is better pickled, which was the advice of the vendor a year ago.
This deciduous monsoon tree can obviously grow in very hot and dry environments such as savannah-like dry dipterocarp forests. Its range include India to Southeast Asia.
The timber of chebule is considered poor for house-making, but such timber may be used for other purposes. The fruits have Ayurvedic medicinal properties but no use in modern science. However, their antiseptic function and the gnawing should be good for your teeth. In India the fruits are used for tanning leather, like alder bark in Europe. The fruits are also used for making black and yellow dyes.
The species was first described by Anders Jahan Retzius in 1789, a Swedish gentleman who was nicknamed ‘the giant of wisdom’ since he mastered so many scientific fields. He wrote a textbook in pharmacy which was translated into Latin and German, and it was probably his combined interest in pharmacy, chemistry and botany that put him in contact with the chebule.
‘Chebula’ is a Latinized form of the French ‘chébule’, which is derived from Pashto ‘halila i kabuli’ (meaning ‘myrobalan from Kabul’). ‘Myrobalan’ is derived from Greek ‘muron’ and ‘balanos’ meaning ‘greasy acorn’ and may refer to many related Terminalia species. The genus Terminalia was coined in 1767 by another Swede, Linnaeus. He used the sea almond, Terminalia catappa, as the type. It has leaves in whorls at the ends of the branches. ‘Terminus’ means ‘end’ in Latin. We grow Terminalia catappa and also T. bellirica at Dokmai Garden. The latter has hairy fruits, and the former has flattened almond-like fruits.
The twigs have whitish lenticels seen as streaks in the light brown bark, and the leaf stalks are somewhat enlarged, flattened and twisted with two glands on top. Some leaf bases are heart-shaped, some are squarish.
One important character is the pair of glands on the leaf stalk near the blade. This leaf comes from the Dokmai Garden sapling, which we got from a local forest nursery. It is possible this is another strain or even subspecies, than the jungle specimen we found outside Dokmai Garden. The glands can also be seen in the top picture on the second leaf under my hand.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell
(Precipitation report: yesterday on the 15th of September we received 29 mm of rain).