Thespesia populnea: Portia tree

Family: Malvaceae
Common name: Portia tree, Indian tulip tree, Milo, Pacific rosewood

Portia tree is a tall, woody tree seen in coastal areas of South India, sometimes used as windbreakers. They are tolerant of strong winds and extreme salinity, making them ideal trees to prevent soil erosion in coastal areas, also near lakes, mangroves and rivers.

Portia trees can grow to a height of 15 meters with a short, sometimes crooked trunk that has a diameter of 60 cms. The outer part of the trunk is grey or brown, rough with fissures, whereas the inner bark or heartwood is reddish brown.

The leaves are heart-shaped with undulating edges, glossy, dark green, borne on long petioles; usually with 7 thick veins radiating from the center towards the edges.

Flowers are light papery yellow in color, with prominent cup-shaped sepals which are retained on the fruits as well. They have 5 petals that are thin like paper tissue, overlapping towards the outer edge. Stamens and style are small but very prominent at the center of the flowers.

Portia tree flowers are short-lived, withering on the same day that it opens, turning dark pink or purple before they fall away. Fruits are a distinguishing feature of the tree that can help you identify it easily. They are rounded but squished at the top and bottom, 5-lobed; initially green, then turning yellow and finally brown. These fruit pods contain several seeds that are about 1cm long.

Flowers, buds, fruits and young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The outer bark yields bast fibers that are used in making ropes, fishing lines and sacks. Portia tree seeds are used to produce oil, which can used in lamps. The leaves, fruits and flowers are used to produce dye, which is used in clothing.

The wood of Portia tree is quite strong and hardy, used to make musical instruments like to’ere in Tahiti, hourglass drums and Tavil, a drum used primarily in Tamilnadu. They are also used to make cabinets, furniture, wooden flooring tiles and canoes. The wood of Portia tree is used extensively since it’s easy to saw and plane; also takes on paint and polish very well.

In addition to these, they also have innumerable medicinal uses. The flowers, leaves and fruits have antifungal and antibacterial properties. The fruits are used to treat herpes, urinary tract infections, abdominal ailments and wounds.

The leaves are used to treat influenza, dysentery, hemorrhoids, cough, headache, itches and skin diseases. The bark is used to treat hypertension, indigestion, ulcers, worms, constipation and typhoid.

Propagation is from seeds and by grafting. The seedpods do not break by themselves, so they have to be cut or scoured to encourage germination.

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