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The Malaysian Sakura - Tabebuia
Published on: Tuesday, May 05, 2015
By: Anthea Phillips
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Once or twice a year during the dry season, the beautiful Malaysian Sakura trees bloom, becoming covered in masses of pinky blossoms of different shades from deep pink to white. Of course, these trees are not really Sakura trees, which are flowering cherries in a completely different family of plants.

In Japan, viewing of the beautiful Sakura or cherry trees in bloom is a major event – special parties are held to view the cherry blossom and picnics are held under the flowering trees.

Sakura Cherry blossoms

Even though our Malaysian Sakura are not cherry trees, their flowers can cover the trees like masses of cherry blossom and somehow the name has stuck.

Nor are Malaysian Sakura from Malaysia! In fact, like so many of the flowering trees planted in Malaysian parks and gardens and along the roadsides, they are introduced from South and Central America and the Caribbean, where there are about 100 species growing as small to large trees.

The most beautiful flowering trees in the world?

Not all species flower readily in our ever wet climate and in the southern parts of Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo there are perhaps only two that will flower well, and then only after a long dry period, but when they do burst into blossom, for about a week or so, they are spectacular, especially if the tree has dropped most of its leaves.

They have been called some of the most beautiful flowering trees in the world and in their native homeland, they can be so spectacular that the lovely pinky-purple-flowered Pink Poui (Tabebuia rosea) is the national tree of El Salvador, while the pink-flowered Ipe, (Tabebuia impetiginosa), is the national flower of both Brazil and Paraguay, and the national tree of Venezuela is the yellow-flowered Golden Goddess (Tabebuia chrysantha).

The Pink Poui

Most of the trees planted around KK are the common Pink Poui (Tabebuia rosea). The name ‘poui’ comes from a local name used in Trinidad in the Caribbean, while the scientific name of Tabebuia comes from a local name used in mainland South America.

According to Manual P. Correa, a Portuguese botanist, who wrote a massive six-volume dictionary on the useful plants of Brazil, published in 1926, the word is derived from “tacyba bebuya”, a name used by the local Tupi Indian people, which means ‘ant-wood”, but he does not explain why.

Don’t call it Pink Tecoma!

Another name I have come across in Malaysia is the Pink Tecoma, but the names of two different plants have become confused here.

Tecoma is actually the Latin name for a more shrubby plant in the same family as the Poui, with similar trumpet-shaped flowers which are bright yellow and which is called Yellow Bells. It is a common ornamental shrub in gardens throughout Malaysia, but should not be confused with the Poui trees which are all species of Tabebuia.

Another species, the Pink Trumpet tree, Tabebuia pallida, has also been planted in some places in KK, most notably in the KK City Park. This is a smaller tree with smaller flowers and leaves with rounded tips in contrast to the much larger leaves of the Pink Poui with pointed tips, but it is not as showy as the Pink Poui.

A few trees of another species, the yellow-flowered Silver Trumpet tree (Tabebuia aurea), from the silvery undersides to its leaves, have been planted at the Agricultural Park in Tenom, where the cooler night temperatures and drier climate means that it flowers far better than it would in KK.

‘Pau d’arco’

In South America, Tabebuia trees are also known as ‘lapacho’ or ‘pau d’arco’, and are well known for the medicinal use of the inner bark. The main species used medicinally, goes under the local name of ‘Ipe’ (Tabebuia impetiginosa), a widespread tree found from northern Mexico, south to northern Argentina, which is also a sought after timber tree, valued for its exceptional durability in salt water. Over harvesting for both its bark and its timber, however, has led to it being listed as ‘endangered’ in several countries.

Medicinal or dangerous?

According to the American Cancer Society, “Tea made from ‘pau d’arco’ is thought to have been used by the ancient Incas and natives of the South American rain forests, who took it to cure disease and as a tonic to strengthen the body and improve overall health. Caribbean folk healers reportedly use the leaf and the bark to treat backaches, toothaches, and sexually transmitted diseases.

The native tribes of Brazil used the tree to make bows for hunting. When the Portuguese colonized Brazil, they named the tree pau d’arco, which means “bow stick.” The herb remains a popular Brazilian folk remedy.

Interest in ‘pau d’arco’ arose in the mid-1960s, when a Brazilian physician claimed that the substance could relieve pain, increase the number of red blood cells, and cure numerous illnesses, including cancer.”


In laboratory animals, the active ingredient, lapachol, was found to act against malaria and certain kinds of animal tumor cells, such as sarcoma but higher doses were also found to prevent blood from clotting and to promote the spread of cancer, as well as to cause changes in DNA that might promote cancer. Birth defects and deaths also occurred among rats whose mothers were given lapachol during pregnancy.

In humans, even fairly low doses of ‘pau d’arco’ can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea as well as interfering with blood clotting. In addition, ‘pau d’arco’, when taken by mouth, can interact with aspirin and other blood-thinning drugs, further increasing the risk of bleeding and anaemia.

Since the early 1980s, health food stores in the United States have sold ‘pau d’arco’, as a treatment for many kinds of medical complaints, but it has been banned in Canada. The bottom line is, that because of its side effects, it is definitely NOT a good idea to take ‘pau d’arco’ unless future trials prove its safety in humans! So don’t be tempted to harvest the bark of Tabebuia trees around KK for cancer treatment or other medicinal purposes – just admire them for their spectacular flowers!


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