The Candlenut Tree aka Buah Keras
Published on: Saturday, December 13, 2014
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Many of the plants that one sees growing around the kampungs in Sabah play interesting roles in the lives of the villagers, and the Candlenut tree is no exception. Silvery-white young leaves

A large, well-shaped tree with lovely whitish-grey young leaves, and large sprays of whitish flowers, the Candlenut tree can also be seen at the Tenom Agricultural Park. In other countries it is commonly planted as an attractive roadside tree.

‘Buah keras’

Burkill, in his “Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula”, wrote that the, “very hard fruit earns for it the name of ‘buah keras’ in Malay, and names in other languages which equally mean hard fruit, but its most widespread name is ‘kemiri’ or ‘kembiri’ …. The hardness is such that in Malaysia, the seed is used in a game, the essential of which is to break the opponent’s nut by hitting it with one’s own”, and goes on to say that in parts of Indonesia (Java and Sunda), a specially hard-fruited race supplied the nuts for this game.

Edible nuts and oil

But this tree is grown mainly for the edible kernels in its nuts and the oil they produce. This oil should not be confused with commercial Tung Oil, used in paints and varnishes, which comes from a different species of Aleurites, native to China.

Although the nuts contain toxic compounds which have a strong laxative effect, the kernels are edible if they have been roasted, for the heat breaks down the toxins. The main use for the nuts in Indonesia is to make a thick sauce, eaten with vegetables and rice, or to add thickness to soups and curries. It was so popular in Java for this purpose that nuts had to be imported from elsewhere to supply the demand! In Malaysia the kernels are popular in Nyonya style cooking.

The scientific name is Aleurites moluccana. The name ‘Aleurites’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘floury’, and refers to the pale, silvery-haired young leaves, which make the whole tree so distinctive. ‘Moluccana’, of course, comes from the Moluccan islands of Indonesia, where the tree is quite common.

Rumphius & the “Herbarium Amboinensis”

On the Moluccan island of Ambon, the tree was noted by the great German botanist Rumphius, who went out to the East with the armies of the Dutch East India Company as a ‘gentleman soldier’, and stayed on as a ‘merchant’. It was during this time that he wrote his monumental work, the “Herbarium Amboinensis”, that described more than 1300 species of plants in seven volumes, almost every one illustrated with detailed black and white drawings!

Originally written in Latin and Dutch, the book went through innumerable problems before it was printed – Rumphius lost his wife, (one of his main sources of information about the uses of the plants), in an earthquake, and went blind when the books were only half complete. Half the illustrations were later lost in a fire and had to be redrawn, and the first time the manuscript was sent to Europe, the ship carrying it sank, so it is quite remarkable that the book survived at all!

Even then, for political reasons, it was not published until 1741, almost 40 years after Rumphius’ death. The first English language version, translated largely as a labour of love by the late Professor Beekman, an eminent Dutch historian based at Harvard University, was published only in 2011.

Candles, Kohl and Tatoos

Burkill translates Rumphius as saying the inside of the nut was full of a rich white substance, adding, “Its most common use among the men of Java and Macassar (Sulawesi) is to form candles by being pounded with cotton and copra until the mass has the consistency of stiff wax and can be shaped into a candle round a bamboo splint. This burns, though with an unpleasant smell, and has gained for the tree, the name candle-nut”. He goes on to say that the soot deposited by these candles was used by as kohl, for staining the eyelids. In Samoa, New Guinea and in Hawaii, this soot was used in making ink for tattoos.

Spread by man since ancient times

Though the Candlenut is undoubtedly native to this region, it is now found from East Africa across India and South-east Asia into the islands of the Pacific, almost certainly spread by people carrying the nuts on their travels. It was another ‘canoe’ plant of the Polynesians who are thought to have reached Hawaii sometime between A.D. 200 and A.D. 500, carrying with them the essentials of their life and culture, including the Candlenut tree.

Hawai’s State Tree

In Hawaii, where the tree has a multitude of uses, it is called ‘kukui’. It is considered to be a symbol of peace, protection and enlightenment and is Hawaii’s state tree, and is planted widely for its ornamental and its cultural value.

According to the Earth Medicine Institute website, the word ‘kukui’ means ‘light’, and according to Lynton Dove White, the author of the “Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii` “, the candlenut nut was, “originally valued most for its light”, but in Hawaii, rather than being laboriously made into candles, “the oil of the white kernels was extracted for its use in stone lamps and in ‘ti’ leaf torches. The shelled nuts were skewered on a coconut frond mid-rib and lit one by one, from the top to bottom, as they sat in a container of sand or dirt, or in the earth itself”, each nut lasting about 15 minutes.

Multiple Uses

Hawaiians still make leis or garlands from the outer shells of the nuts, as well as from the kernels, while the bark, flowers, leaves and nuts all enter into medicinal preparations for a wide range of ailments. The inner bark gives a reddish dye which was used to camouflage fishing nets, while the oil from the seeds was used to preserve the nets. Even canoes could be made from the light timber.

Calming the Sea

When fishing, fishermen would chew the kernels and spit them out onto water – the oilyness in the nuts creating a film on the surface which calmed small ripples, making it easier to see the fish.

Shampoo and Poultices

On the Pacific islands Fiji and of Tonga, a paste made from the pounded nuts was used as a shampoo and in traditional funeral rites. In the Malay Peninsula, pulped kernels were used in poultices for headaches, fevers and swollen joints.

‘Inamona’ and ‘Poke’

Though candles are no longer made from the nuts, the kernels are still valuable as a food flavouring. In Hawai, ‘inamona’, made from crushing the kernels with coarse salt, is an essential ingredient in the traditional raw salad known as ‘poke’, (usually made with raw tuna fish), and in Borneo it is still planted in villages, and should be used more widely as an ornamental tree as well.

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