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Thespesia populnea (L.) Sol. ex Corrêa.

Ann. Mus. Natl. Hist. Nat. 9: 290 (1807).
Chromosome number
2n = 24, 26, 28
Vernacular names
Portia tree, Pacific rosewood, umbrella tree, Indian tulip tree (En). Motel debou, feuilles d’Haiti, porché, kalfata, milo, arbre ombrelle, bois de rose d’Océanie (Fr). Pau rosa, bela sombra, tespesia (Po). Mtakawa (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Thespesia populnea probably originates from the Asian tropics or from the coasts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It now occurs throughout the tropics in coastal areas; it is planted in coastal towns and occasionally inland.
The wood (trade names: milo, Seychelles rosewood, Polynesia rosewood, Pacific rosewood) is used for a wide range of purposes where quality is more important than size. In Ghana the wood is used for canoe seats, paddles, car parts, wheelbarrows and domestic utensils. In East Africa the wood sawn in small planks is used to repair fishing boats. In the Indo-Pacific region the wood is considered excellent for carving and is widely used for bowls and plates, clubs, paddles, agricultural implements, musical instruments, gunstocks, carts, wheels, boats, tool handles, furniture, cabinet work, utensils, jewellery and turnery. It is also considered suitable for light construction, flooring, wall panelling, interior trim, precision equipment, toys and novelties, and pattern making. The wood can be used as firewood.
The bark yields a tough fibre used for cordage, fishing lines, basketry, coffee bags and for caulking boats. In West Africa and India the leaves are used for wrapping food. Young shoots are used as fodder and as green manure. In South-East Asia and India the young leaves, flowers and unripe fruits are eaten raw, boiled or fried as a vegetable. The flowers and fruits yield a water-soluble yellowish dye, while the wood soaked in water gives a solution that is used in Asia to dye wool deep brown. In Tuvalu the leaves are used for making a black dye. The bark has been used for tanning leather and yields a thick gum which is not soluble in water. Oil from the seed can be used as lamp oil.
The tree is often planted as an ornamental, shade or roadside tree in coastal zones. In Madagascar it has been planted to support vanilla vines. In India and on Pacific islands the tree is planted as a live fence and along the coast as protection against erosion. In Asian mangrove areas it is planted to consolidate ridges and bunds in an aqua-silvicultural system for prawn production. Thespesia populnea is a sacred tree in many parts of the Pacific, where it has often been planted near temples and is used in traditional ceremonies.
In traditional medicine, the bark, root, leaves, flowers and fruits are used to treat a range of ailments, including skin problems, dysentery, cholera, haemorrhoids, liver and gall bladder problems, urethritis, gonorrhoea, rheumatism and high blood pressure. In Nigeria the bark and a lotion from the boiled bark are applied to wounds, and the seed oil to skin infections. In Mauritius the fruit sap is applied to warts. The heartwood is used to treat pleuritis, cholera, colic and fevers, and is considered carminative. The cooked fruit crushed in coconut oil provides a salve that is applied to the hair to kill lice.
The heartwood is reddish brown to dark brown, often with purple veining; it is sharply differentiated from the 1–2 cm wide sapwood, which is white to pale yellow or pale pink, darkening on exposure. The grain is shallowly interlocked to wavy, texture medium to fine. The wood shows slight ribbon figure on quarter-sawn faces. Freshly cut wood has a rose-like smell.
The density of the wood is about 770 kg/m³ at 12% moisture content. The wood seasons well, and does not warp or check. Shrinkage rates are 3.8% radial and 6.9% tangential from green to oven dry. Movement in service is very low.
The wood is strong and hard. At 12% moisture content, the modulus of rupture is 118 N/mm², modulus of elasticity 11,690 N/mm², and compression parallel to grain 56 N/mm². The wood is easy to saw and work with hand and machine tools. It turns well in both green and dry conditions, can be finished to an attractive polish and paints well. The wood contains an oil which slows down drying of varnishes. It has medium to poor gluing properties.
The heartwood is very durable, even when in contact with water or the ground. It is resistant to termites, but not to marine borers. The sapwood is not susceptible to Lyctus borers.
The heartwood contains several sesquiterpenoid quinones, including mansonone D and H, thespone and thespesone, which are known to induce contact dermatitis, to inhibit tumour formation and to have antifungal properties. The heartwood and other plant parts contain gossypol.
The ultimate bast fibre cells are 1.0–3.5 mm long, with a diameter of 9–20 μm. The fruits yield 0.4% of a flavonoid colouring matter. Thespesin, a sesquiterpene dimer, is the yellow dye compound and is mainly obtained from the fruit. The seeds contain 18–34% oil, with 43–49% linoleic acid, 21–34% palmitic acid, 14–33% oleic acid and 2–3% stearic acid. Thespesin, ceryl alcohol and β-sitosterol have been isolated from the unsaponifiable fraction of the seed oil.
The bark contains up to 7% tannin. Aqueous and methanolic extracts of the bark have shown in-vivo anti-oxidant activity in rats. The fruits and leaves contain compounds with antibacterial activity, whereas methanolic extracts of the flower buds have shown antifungal activity. Ethanol extracts of the flower have shown antihepatotoxic activity. Aqueous extracts of the fruit have shown wound-healing activity in rats after topical or oral administration. The seeds have purgative properties. The seed oil has anti-amoebic activity. The root is toxic.
Evergreen shrub or small tree up to 10(–20) m tall; bole branchless for up to 3 m, often twisted or bent, becoming hollow with age, up to 60(–120) cm in diameter, without buttresses; outer bark becoming rough and fissured in older trees, greyish, inner bark very fibrous, pink; crown broad and dense; twigs densely covered with minute brown to silvery scales, glabrescent. Leaves arranged spirally, simple and entire; stipules lanceolate to subulate, 3–10 mm long; petiole 2–11(–16) cm long, scaly; blade orbicular, deltoid, ovate or oblong, 6–23 cm × 5–16 cm, base cordate, apex acuminate, rather fleshy and shiny, both surfaces covered with small scales, palmately 7-veined, main veins yellow, mostly with saccate nectaries in the axils of the basal veins beneath. Flowers solitary in leaf axils, bisexual; pedicel 1.5–10 cm long, erect or ascending; hypanthium discoid, 6–8 mm in diameter; epicalyx segments 3, oblong to lanceolate, 2–17 mm × 2 mm, early caducous, acute; calyx campanulate, 7–15 mm long, truncate or slightly toothed at apex, densely appressed hairy inside, glabrescent outside; petals 5, obliquely obovate, 4–8.5 cm × 3.5–6 cm, apex rounded, pale yellow with dark purple basis, scaly outside, glabrous inside; stamens numerous, fused into a staminal column, with free filaments 3–5 mm long, anthers c. 1.5 mm long; ovary superior, globose to ovoid, 8–10 mm in diameter, scaly, 10-celled, style c. 4 cm long, stigmas club-shaped, pale yellow. Fruit a depressed globose capsule 2–4.5 cm in diameter, faintly 5-angular, apex obtuse or slightly depressed, yellowish to brownish green when mature, scaly, usually indehiscent, exuding a bright yellow gum when cut, many-seeded. Seeds obovoid, 8–15 mm × 6–9 mm, slightly angular, covered by closely matted silky hairs. Seedling with epigeal germination; hypocotyl elongated; cotyledons leafy; all leaves arranged spirally.
Other botanical information
Thespesia comprises about 15 species and is distributed throughout the tropics. Within Thespesia populnea, some authors recognize the specimens occurring along the coasts of the Indian Ocean as a distinct species: Thespesia populneoides (Roxb.) Kostel., having somewhat bronzed or coppery, shallowly cordate leaves, pedicels 5–12 cm long and fruits with a dehiscing outer layer. However, many intermediate specimens (called ‘hybrids’ by some) exist where both types can be found. In Sri Lanka some of these ‘hybrids’ have been widely propagated vegetatively as ornamentals and living fences.
Thespesia acutiloba (Baker f.) Exell & Mendonça (‘wild tulip tree’ or ‘small-leaves tulip tree’) is a shrub or small tree up to 5(–6) m tall, occurring in Mozambique and Natal (South Africa) in woodland and thickets on recent sands near the coast. Its heartwood, which is dark and becomes hard and durable when seasoned, has been used for carving and for making spears, sticks and musical instruments. A decoction of the bark is taken against chronic dysentery. It is easy to cultivate.
Thespesia danis Oliv. is a shrub or small tree up to 6(–10) m tall, occurring in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania in forest, bushland and grassland up to 500 m altitude. The stems are made into throwing-clubs, bows and arrows, and are used as fire-sticks. The bark is used for tying. The fruit is recorded to be edible. A dye is obtained from the flowers and fruits. Root decoctions are taken against gonorrhoea, stomach pain, pain in the spinal region, haematuria and swelling of the abdomen.
Wood-anatomical description (IAWA hardwood codes):
Growth rings: (1: growth ring boundaries distinct); (2: growth ring boundaries indistinct or absent). Vessels: 5: wood diffuse-porous; 13: simple perforation plates; 22: intervessel pits alternate; (23: shape of alternate pits polygonal); 25: intervessel pits small (4–7 μm); (26: intervessel pits medium (7–10 μm)); 30: vessel-ray pits with distinct borders; similar to intervessel pits in size and shape throughout the ray cell; 41: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 50–100 μm; 42: mean tangential diameter of vessel lumina 100–200 μm; 47: 5–20 vessels per square millimetre; 58: gums and other deposits in heartwood vessels. Tracheids and fibres: 61: fibres with simple to minutely bordered pits; 63: fibre pits common in both radial and tangential walls; 66: non-septate fibres present; 69: fibres thin- to thick-walled. Axial parenchyma: 76: axial parenchyma diffuse; (77: axial parenchyma diffuse-in-aggregates); (79: axial parenchyma vasicentric); 86: axial parenchyma in narrow bands or lines up to three cells wide; 90: fusiform parenchyma cells; 91: two cells per parenchyma strand; (92: four (3–4) cells per parenchyma strand). Rays: (97: ray width 1–3 cells); (98: larger rays commonly 4- to 10-seriate); 106: body ray cells procumbent with one row of upright and/or square marginal cells; 107: body ray cells procumbent with mostly 2–4 rows of upright and/or square marginal cells; 110: sheath cells present; (111: tile cells present); 115: 4–12 rays per mm. Storied structure: 119: low rays storied, high rays non-storied; 120: axial parenchyma and/or vessel elements storied. Mineral inclusions: 136: prismatic crystals present; 137: prismatic crystals in upright and/or square ray cells; (141: prismatic crystals in non-chambered axial parenchyma cells).
(P. Mugabi, A.A. Oteng-Amoako & P. Baas)
Growth and development
Germination begins 8 days after sowing and may extend for as long as 10 weeks. Growth in height is rapid in the first few years (0.5–1.5 m per year), but slows down at 7–10 years of age. Stem diameter growth is 1–3 cm/year. Flowering may already begin when the tree is only 1–2 years old. In southern Africa flowering is in February–March and fruiting in March–June, in more even equatorial climates flowering is year-round. The pale yellow flowers open at about 10 a.m., turn reddish orange in the afternoon, fade to pink on the tree and do not fall off for several days. Pollination is probably by birds. The seeds float and remain viable in seawater for more than a year, making natural distribution by sea currents possible. Thespesia populnea naturalizes easily and has become a weed in some regions.
Thespesia populnea is a tree of tropical and warm subtropical climates and is usually found up to 150 m altitude. The mean annual temperature may range from 20–26°C, the mean annual rainfall from 500–5000 mm. Occasional very light frost is tolerated. The tree grows best in full sunlight and does not grow well in the shade of other trees. It tolerates wind and salt spray. It is suitable for dry locations because it develops a long taproot in porous soils; it may tolerate a dry season of up to 8 months. Thespesia populnea thrives on sandy coastal soils as well as volcanic, limestone and rocky soils with a pH of 6.0–7.4. It tolerates heavier soils, soil salinity and occasional inundation, but does not grow on permanently inundated soils. Natural stands occur at the inland edges of mangrove swamps and along tidal waters.
Propagation and planting
Thespesia populnea is usually propagated by seed, but propagation by stem or root cuttings or by air-layering is also possible. The 1000-seed weight is 140–285 g. Seed storage behaviour is orthodox, retaining viability when dried and stored. Germination can be difficult due to the hard seed coat, and is improved by scarification with a knife, sandpaper or with concentrated sulphuric acid for 20–60 minutes. Direct sowing is generally practised. For plants grown in a nursery, pots must be large enough to accommodate the taproot. Seeds may be pre-germinated before being planted in pots. The plants are normally ready for planting out in 12–16 weeks, but trees up to 3.5 m tall have been planted out successfully from containers. Stump planting involves cutting back the stem to about 1 cm above the root collar before transplanting, thus allowing the roots to recover before new leaves develop. Wildlings are also collected and transplanted. For vegetative propagation small cuttings should be rooted in a nursery before planting out, but cuttings up to 2 m long have also been successfully planted directly in the field.
Weeding is important until the tree has become established. Thespesia populnea tolerates heavy pruning, but regrowth is slow. Nevertheless, trees should be pruned to develop clear boles for timber production. It may take 25–40 years before the tree is large enough to produce usable timber, although branches as little as 5 cm thick are used for carving.
Diseases and pests
Thespesia populnea is prone to root and stem rot caused by the fungus Phellinus noxius. Symptoms are slowly enlarging diseased patches and a thick, dark brown mycelial sheath around the base of infected trees. It is also recorded to be susceptible to fungal leaf spot (Lophodermium sp.), heart rot (Fomes pachyphloeus) and branch canker of tea (Phomopsis theae).
The tree is a host of a number of serious pests of cotton, such as cotton stainers (Dysdercus spp.), spiny bollworms (Earias spp.) and the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis). Therefore, planting is discouraged or even outlawed in some cotton-growing areas.
Genetic resources
Thespesia populnea has a wide distribution and is not threatened by genetic erosion.
Although widely grown as an ornamental, named cultivars have not been released.
Thespesia populnea is a multipurpose tree suitable for dry and saline conditions, of which the wood is mainly used locally, e.g. for carving. It is unlikely that the importance for sawn timber will increase, but its local use will remain. It may become increasingly important as an ornamental and it is eminently suitable for coastal erosion control. It should not be promoted in cotton-growing areas, as it is a host of several cotton pests.
Major references
• Abbiw, D.K., 1990. Useful plants of Ghana: West African uses of wild and cultivated plants. Intermediate Technology Publications, London and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 337 pp.
• Balu Perumal, 1998. Thespesia Soland. ex Corrêa. In: Sosef, M.S.M., Hong, L.T. & Prawirohatmodjo, S. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 5(3). Timber trees: Lesser-known timbers. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 556–558.
• Burkill, H.M., 1997. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 4, Families M–R. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 969 pp.
• Chowdhury, K.A. & Ghosh, S.S., 1958. Indian woods: their identification, properties and uses. Volume 1. Dilleniaceae to Elaeocarpaceae. Manager of Publications, Delhi, India. 304 pp.
• Friday, J.B. & Okano, D., 2006. Thespesia populnea (milo), version 2.1. [Internet] In: Elevitch, C.R. (Editor). Species profiles for Pacific Island agroforestry. Permanent Agriculture Resources (PAR), Holualoa, Hawaii. Accessed July 2006.
• Keating, W.G. & Bolza, E., 1982. Characteristics, properties and uses of timbers. Vol.1: South East Asia, northern Australia and the Pacific. Inkata Press, Melbourne, Australia. 362 pp.
• Latiff, A. & Faridah Hanum, I., 1997. Thespesia populnea (L.) Soland. ex Correa. In: Faridah Hanum, I. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 11. Auxiliary plants. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 251–252.
• Marais, W. & Friedmann, F., 1987. Malvacées. In: Bosser, J., Cadet, T., Guého, J. & Marais, W. (Editors). Flore des Mascareignes. Familles 51–62. The Sugar Industry Research Institute, Mauritius, l’Office de la Recherche Scientifique Outre-Mer, Paris, France & Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 57 pp.
• Thulin, M., 1999. Malvaceae. In: Thulin, M. (Editor). Flora of Somalia. Volume 2. Angiospermae (Tiliaceae-Apiaceae). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 40–83.
• Vollesen, K., 1995. Malvaceae. In: Edwards, S., Mesfin Tadesse & Hedberg, I. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 2, part 2. Canellaceae to Euphorbiaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 190–256.
Other references
• Beentje, H.J., 1994. Kenya trees, shrubs and lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya. 722 pp.
• CAB International, 2005. Forestry Compendium. Thespesia populnea. [Internet] fc/datasheet.asp?CCODE=THESPO. Accessed July 2006.
• Coates Palgrave, K., 1983. Trees of southern Africa. 2nd Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa. 959 pp.
• CSIR, 1972. The wealth of India. A dictionary of Indian raw materials & industrial products. Raw materials. Volume 9: Rh–So. Publications and Information Directorate, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, India. 472 pp.
• Datta, P.C. & Saha, A., 1970. A key to the microscopy of common vegetable fibres of Bengal. Bulletin of the Botanical Society of Bengal 24(1–2): 61–73.
• Exell, A.W. & Meeuse, A.D.J., 1961. Malvaceae. In: Exell, A.W. & Wild, H. (Editors). Flora Zambesiaca. Volume 1, part 2. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 420–511.
• Fosberg, F.R. & Sachet, M.-H., 1972. Thespesia populnea (L.) Solander ex Correa and Thespesia populneoides (Roxburgh) Kosteletsky (Malvaceae). Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 7. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, United States. 13 pp.
• Grace, J.K., Ewart, D.M. & Tome, C.H.M., 1996. Termite resistance of wood species grown in Hawaii. Forest Products Journal 46(10): 57–60.
• Gurib-Fakim, A. & Brendler, T., 2004. Medicinal and aromatic plants of Indian Ocean Islands: Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and Mascarenes. Medpharm, Stuttgart, Germany. 568 pp.
• Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1996. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 2. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 532 pp.
• Hochreutiner, B.P.G., 1955. Malvacées (Malvaceae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), familles 129–130. Firmin-Didot et cie., Paris, France. 170 pp.
• Ilavarasan, R., Vasudevan, M., Anbazhagan, S. & Venkataraman, S., 2003. Antioxidant activity of Thespesia populnea bark extracts against carbon tetrachloride-induced liver injury in rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 87(2–3): 227–230.
• InsideWood, undated. [Internet] Accessed May 2007.
• Kader, S.A. & Chacko, K.C., 2000. Seed characteristics and germination of portia tree (Thespesia populnea (Linn.) Soland ex Correa). Indian Journal of Forestry 23(4): 428–432.
• Milbrodt, M., König, W.A. & Hausen, B.M., 1997. 7-Hydroxy-2,3,5,6-tetrahydro-3,6,9 trimethylnaphtho(1,8-B,C)pyran-4,8-dione from Thespesia populnea. Phytochemistry 45(7): 1523–1525.
• Nagappa, A.N. & Binu Cheriyan, 2001. Wound healing activity of the aqueous extract of Thespesia populnea fruit. Fitoterapia 72(5): 503–506.
• Natarajan, D., Srinivasan, K., Mohanasundari, C., Perumal, G., Abdul Nazar Dheen, M., Anbu Ganapathi, G. & Rajarajan, T., 2005. Antifungal properties of three medicinal plant extracts against Cercospora arachidicola. Advances in Plant Sciences 18(1): 45–47.
• Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
• Shirwaikar, A., Vasanth Kumar, A., Krishnanand, B.R. & Sreenivasan, K.K., 1995. Chemical investigation and antihepatotoxic activity of Thespesia populnea. International Journal of Pharmacognosy 33(4): 305–310.
• Williams, R.O., 1949. The useful and ornamental plants in Zanzibar and Pemba. Zanzibar, Tanzania. 497 pp.
• World Agroforestry Centre, undated. Agroforestree Database. [Internet] World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya. Sites/TreeDBS/ aft.asp. Accessed June 2006.
Sources of illustration
• Latiff, A. & Faridah Hanum, I., 1997. Thespesia populnea (L.) Soland. ex Correa. In: Faridah Hanum, I. & van der Maesen, L.J.G. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 11. Auxiliary plants. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 251–252.
P. Oudhia
SOPAM, 28-A, Geeta Nagar, Raipur, 492001, C.G., India

D. Louppe
CIRAD, Département Environnements et Sociétés, Cirad es-dir, Campus international de Baillarguet, TA C-DIR / B (Bât. C, Bur. 113), 34398 Montpellier Cedex 5, France
A.A. Oteng-Amoako
Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), University P.O. Box 63, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana
M. Brink
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
General editors
R.H.M.J. Lemmens
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
L.P.A. Oyen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
J.R. Cobbinah
Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), University P.O. Box 63, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana
Photo editor
A. de Ruijter
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article:
Oudhia, P., 2007. Thespesia populnea (L.) Sol. ex Corrêa. In: Louppe, D., Oteng-Amoako, A.A. & Brink, M. (Editors). Prota 7(1): Timbers/Bois d’œuvre 1. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Distribution Map wild and planted

1, flowering branch; 2, fruit.
Source: PROSEA

tree habit
obtained from
Plants of Hawaii

leaves and flowers
obtained from
Plants of Hawaii

leaves and flower


leaves and fruits
obtained from
Plants of Hawaii

fruiting branch
obtained from
University of Hawaii

obtained from
University of Hawaii

obtained from
Carlton McLendon, Inc.