How Monkeypod Trees Work


The monkeypod tree has a variety of names in the many different regions where it grows. See more tree pictures.
Andre Nantel/iStockphoto

­Monkeypod tree. It sounds a bit strange, bringing to mind a sci-fi vision of a tree that grows monkeys instead of leaves. Most likely not the kind of tree you'd want growing in your backyard! In real life, however, the monkeypod tree is quite common, and actually doesn't have all that much to do with monkeys.­

A monkeypod tree can grow to a large size, reaching heights of 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 meters), with a broad crown or canopy resembling an umbrella. The canopy is what makes this tree special. It typically grows about 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter, but can go as big as 200 feet (61 meters) if the tree is very old [source: Flores]. The canopy grows biggest when the tree can grow in an open space, where it has the freedom to spread out. Because the canopy on a monkeypod tree can grow so wide, it makes a great shade tree.

Monkeypod trees are often planted in pastures, along the roadside, or even in parking lots to provide shade. The monkeypod grows pink flowers that resemble powder puffs. These flowers are pollinated by insects and will develop edible seed pods about 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) in length.

Some people believe the monkeypod tree got its name from the monkeys that congregate on its branches to eat the sweet seed pods. Others say that monkeypod is a derivation of one of the tree's scientific names of Pithecellobium, which means "monkey earring" in Greek [source: Skolmen].

­However, the tree does have several different names. Besides monkeypod, it's also widely known as a rain tree. This name pro­bably comes from the fact that grass under a monkeypod tree always remains green, even in times of drought. That's partly because the tree's leaves curl up and close at night, which allows rain to more easily pass through to the ground. There are a few other reasons, too. The first is the tree's large canopy, which keeps the ground below shaded and cool. Secondly, the monkeypod tree adds a lot of nitrogen to the surrounding soil from its seed pod droppings, which makes the grass greener. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth, as it's a major component of chlorophyll. Another reason it's called a rain tree? When the tree is heavily flowering, the stamens from the flowers sometimes drop to the ground, like rain.

In Latin America the monkeypod tree is called the saman tree. This comes from the botanical name of Samanea saman. In the Philippines, it's called mimosa, which is derived from the family name mimosoideae.

Read the next page to learn more about the monkeypod tree -- including where and how it grows and why one company has paid more than $4 million for the rights to a single tree.

Monkeypod Tree Growth and Development

Monkeypod flowers look like pink powder puffs and they produce nectar to attract various pollinators.
Monkeypod flowers look like pink powder puffs and they produce nectar to attract various pollinators.
Jill Lang/iStockphoto

­The monkeypod tree is native to Central and South America -- it's widespread from Mexico down through Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Because the tree drops seeds, birds and rodents naturally disseminate them. Today, it's found throughout the tropics, as well as in some parts of the United States and its possessions. Look for monkeypod trees in Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. As you'll see, the monkeypod tree is quite adaptable and weather-tol­erant.

The monkeypod tree accepts a wide variety of climates, but its natural preference is a tropical, seasonally dry one. The tree can survive a dry period of several months, but will also grow in areas with regular rainfall. Its preferred temperature ranges from 68 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 38 degrees Celsius), and the coldest temperature it will tolerate is about 46 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius). And it can't tolerate frost or saltwater spray, either [source: Staples and Elevitch].

A monkeypod tree will grow moderately fast -- 2.5 to 5 feet (.7 to 1.5 meters) per year. How does that compare with other trees with which you might be familiar? A sugar maple tree grows at a rate of 1 to 2 feet (.3 to .6 meters) per year, and a white pine tree grows about 2 feet (.6 meters) or more per year [source: Arbor Day Foundation].

The leaves on a monkeypod tree are diamond-shaped and green. The tree is semi-deciduous, meaning the leaves will fall off, but only for a short time. This usually occurs during a dry season and the tree re-foliates once there is adequate moisture. Depending on the climate, some monkeypod trees re-foliate so quickly that the tree appears to keep its leaves year-round.

­Monkeypod trees flower in a seasonal manner. Flowering usually s­tarts at the end of the dry season, when leaves and any previous seed pods drop. New foliage appears and flowering begins at the same time. Flowering tends to peak in the spring, although a tree may have flow­ers in almost any month. In its native Central and South America, you'll see the flowering between January and May, while in areas like Hawaii flowering occurs in April and May. In Thailand, the monkeypod tree has two flowering seasons -- February to May and September to November [source: Staples and Elevitch].

The monkeypod flowers resemble powder puffs -- around two dozen tiny pink flowers gathered on a pinkish head. The flower heads are around 2 to 2.5 inches (5 to 6 centimeters) across, with long red and white stamens. A stamen is the pollen-producing part of a flower. The center of each flower head produces nectar to attract pollinators.

After pollination, the monkeypod tree forms its fruit -- the seed pods we mentioned earlier. Seed pods start out green and mature into a brownish-black color. They are ridged and lumpy and you can easily see the shape of the seeds inside the pods. Pods grow between 4 and 8 inches (10 and 20 centimeters) long, and are sometimes straight and sometimes curly on the ends. Crack open a pod to find the seeds and a sticky, sweet pulp. You can typically find 15 to 20 seeds per pod. Both the pulp and the seeds are edible, and possess a licorice-like flavor [source: Flores].

A monkeypod tree will live, on average, for about 80 to 100 years [source: Staples and Elevitch].

Continue reading to find out what the monkeypod tree provides us -- other than natural beauty, of course.

Uses for the Monkeypod Tree

A master wood carver creates a monkeypod wood tiki on the island of Maui in Hawaii.
A master wood carver creates a monkeypod wood tiki on the island of Maui in Hawaii.
Jordan Ayan/iStockphoto

­The monkeypod tree isn't only beautiful to look at -- it also "gives back" by providing us with everything from shade to folk remedies and even monkeypod furniture. Let's take a look at some of the popular uses for the monkeypod tree.

Monkeypod trees are valued for their timber -- a durable hardwood. The wood has a straight grain and a coarse texture that makes it easy to carve an­d less likely to dry out and crack. As monkeypod trees tend to have large trunks, they're also a preferred wood for furniture. Because monkeypod trees grow easily and relatively fast, its wood is considered eco-friendly. In other words, trees harvested for timber can be quickly replaced. Hawaiian monkeypod bowls are also very popular among consumers and tourists -- just do a simple Internet search and you'll find hundreds, if not thousands, of hand-carved wooden bowls for sale. Monkeypod wood is also fibrous enough to make paper.

Another reason people plant monkeypod trees is for shade. Monkeypod trees need a lot of space in order to grow a wide, large canopy, so they're mostly unsuitable for home or urban landscapes. However, in their native environment, monkeypod trees are commonly used for shade along streets, in parks and other public areas. They're even planted as a shade tree for crops like coffee, cacao and vanilla.

The monkeypod tree is also useful for enriching its surrounding soil with nitrogen. Its foliage, flowers, and seed pods fall to the ground and decompose into nitrogen-rich matter. Botanists call this sort of tree "nitrogen fixing," as it nourishes and stabilizes the soil [source: Elevitch and Wilkinson].

The seed pods on the tree are also quite useful. Children like to eat the licorice-flavored fruit pulp inside the pods. In fact, in some parts of the Caribbean, the tree is actually known as the licorice tree [source: Staples and Elevitch]. People also make the pulp into a lemonade-like beverage -- similar to tamarind, another popular drink in the tropics. Artisans will often dry out the seeds and use them to make necklaces and other craft items.

­Monkeypod seeds also make a good livestock feed. This has the added bonus of spreading ­the seeds around, as they return to the ground after passing through the digestive system of th­e animal that eats them. Researchers believe this is partly how the monkeypod tree spread to so many different habitats.

There are also various folk remedies associated with monkeypod trees. In Venezuela, people use a root decoction in hot baths to treat stomach cancer. A decoction is where the root is mashed-up and placed in hot, or even boiling, water to release its compounds. Steeping the leaves in water (similar to tea) provides a laxative effect. The alcoholic extract of the monkeypod's leaves also inhibits Mycobacterium tuberculosis. And, some people will chew on the astringent-like seeds to soothe a sore throat [source: National Tropical Botanical Garden].

To find out more about the monkeypod tree, leaf through some of the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • AgroForestry Tree Database. "Albizia saman." (Dec. 12, 2008) http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/sea/products/afdbases/af/asp/SpeciesInfo.asp?SpID=180
  • Arbor Day Foundation. "Tree Guide." (Dec. 12, 2008) http://www.arborday.org/trees/treeGuide/index.cfm
  • Duke, James A. "Samanea saman (Jacq.) Merr." Handbook of Energy Crops. 1983.(Dec. 12, 2008) http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Samanea_saman.html
  • Elevitch, Craig and Wilkinson, Kim. "Nitrogen Fixing Trees: Multipurpose Pioneers." Agroforestry.net. Sept. 3, 2008. (Dec. 12, 2008) http://www.agroforestry.net/pubs/NFTs.html
  • Flores, E.M. "Samanea saman (Jacq.) Merr." Tropical Tree Seed Manual. July 14, 2003. (Dec. 12, 2008) http://www.rngr.net/Publications/ttsm/Folder.2003-07-11.4726/PDF.2004-03-16.2148/file
  • Kinsbruner, Jay. "Simón Bolívar." MSN Encarta. (Dec. 12, 2008) http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761569365/simon_bolivar.html
  • National Tropical Botanical Garden. "Meet the Plants: Samanea saman." (Dec. 12, 2008) http://ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=10174
  • Skolmen, Roger G. "Pithecellobium saman (Jacq.) Benth. - Monkey-Pod."US Forest Service. (Dec. 12, 2008) http://www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/pithecellobium/saman.htm
  • Staples, George W. and Elevitch, Craig R. "Samanea saman (rain tree)." Agroforestry.net. April 2006. (Dec. 12, 2008) http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/Samanea-raintree.pdf