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The Midnight Horror tree
Published on: Sunday, April 22, 2012

WHEN we first started exploring the highways and byways in Sabah for plants, we were struck by a strange little tree, with immense dangling seedpods that we initially discovered growing among the hot pools at Poring in the Kinabalu Park, and where it still grows.

We looked it up in the "Wayside Trees of Malaya", written by the tropical botanist E.J.H. Corner.

Corner was the Assistant Director of Singapore's Botanical Gardens from 1926 to 1946 which gave him unparalleled opportunities for studying the plants of the Malay Peninsula.

The tree has several rather sinister names - the most well-known of these being "Midnight Horror".

The scientific name is Oroxylum indicum, (from the Greek 'oros' meaning 'mountain' and 'xulon', meaning wood); indicum means 'pertaining to India', but the common name is much more descriptive, and our interest was aroused by Corner's comment - "This grotesque tree fills us with astonishment.

Botanically it is the sole representative of its kind; aesthetically it is a monstrosity."

The Midnight Horror is native to Borneo but is also found from India all the way across to southern China.

In Sabah it is usually a rather scrubby, small, spindly tree, with a few thin upright branches crowned at the top by huge, much divided, triangular, leaves which are so large they can be mistaken for branches by those who are unfamiliar with them.

In fact, the leaves of the Midnight Horror are the most divided leaves that exist in the plant world, thus, botanically, it is indeed "the sole representative of its kind".

An ordinary divided leaf such as a coconut palm frond, is called a pinnate leaf, but in many other trees which also have pinnate leaves, such as the glorious red-flowered Flame of the Forest (see Wonders of Borneo, April 1), those leaflets are divided again, creating a twice-pinnate leaf.

In the Midnight Horror, the leaflets can be divided again and sometimes yet again, creating four divisions.

It is the only tree in the world that does this and only the very largest leaves, up to 7 ft (just over 2metres) in length, actually have four divisions.

The largest leaf that we have actually measured was 240cms long! Young trees remain unbranched until their first flowering, looking like gigantic umbrellas, from the centre of which the inflorescence with its fleshy flowers emerges. After flowering, the Midnight Horror loses its leaves, which fall to the ground in bits, the large leaf-stalks collecting around the base of the tree, as Corner puts it "like a collection of limb-bones, so that we may call it the Broken Bones plant."

I found this a rather extraordinary description, but when re-visiting the Poring Hot Springs recently, I saw just how apt it was!

After the leaves have fallen, the bare branches stand against the sky like an ugly skeleton, for a few short weeks, with the large dagger-like pods hanging down, giving the impression that the tree has died - "aesthetically a monstrosity", but soon new branches break out from the side and develop more large leaves, and so the tree grows.

It is the fleshy white and purple flowers that give the tree its common name of Midnight Horror, for they open at night, giving off a foul smell of decay and faeces, but one which is attractive to the bats that come to sip the nectar and so pollinate the flowers.

Before dawn, the flowers fall to the ground, covered in scratches from the bats, and the pollinated flowers develop into long dangling sword-like pods, over a metre in length, longer than those of any other tree, thus yet another name, the "Tree of Damocles", also given by Corner.

Why Damocles?

According to popular Roman legend, Damocles was a courtier of the tyrant king Dionysius II of Syracuse, (an ancient Greek city on the island of Sicily, off southern Italy), who lived in the 4th century BC.

Praising the king's wealth and power obsequiously, (and enviously, it seems), was Damocles' main occupation, for one day, Dionysius, tiring of all the flattery, suggested that Damocles change places with him for a day and prepared a feast for him with servants to fulfil his every wish.

Reclining on a golden couch, surrounded by rich furnishings and waited upon hand and foot, it was not until Damocles looked up that he realised Dionysius had also ordered a huge sword to be suspended straight above him, attached by only a single hair from a horse's tail.

The terrified Damocles begged to change places back with Dionysius, who blandly explained that great wealth and power do not come without constant danger. The story ends happily though, with Dionysius returning to his throne and Damocles a wiser man.

Thus today when people refer to the 'Sword of Damocles', they are referring to an imminent threat, though one is unlikely to have a pod of the Midnight Horror falling on one's head!

The pods split open on the tree, revealing the papery winged seeds inside which float away on the breeze.

According to Burkill's Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula" (1966), the bark from the roots is bitter and a decoction was used for treating dysentery and diarrhoea from India to Java, while leaf-poultices were used for toothache and headaches.

The seeds were used medicinally for rheumatism as well, but perhaps not in Sabah.

One kind and venerable gentleman who allowed us to photograph the tree on his land near Kota Belud, said it was of no use at all, but in Thailand, the flower buds, young leaves and young pods have all been recorded as being eaten in salads.

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