Updated: Oct 21
The Autograph Tree-4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? The Autograph Tree-Clusia rosea is a member of the Mangosteen family although it is not edible. It is a sub-tropical to tropical evergreen tree. It can grow up to 65 feet but generally doesn't grow more than 35 feet. A tough plant-it is salt and wind tolerant and is also considered to a bit of a pest due to being a hemiepiphyte- having the ability to grow without soil in a rock or on a tree trunk and eventually sending down roots which can strangle its living host. Seeds are spread by birds mostly. The flowers are white with lime green sticky centers. It got it's common name of Autograph or Signature Tree because the leaves are thick, fleshy and smooth. They have been used as playing cards, but more popularly as living graffiti, making the plant quite a novelty! Whatever is scratched into the leaf scars it, without killing it, and this evergreen leaf can remain on the tree for years (I have met several visitors who told me they have signed the same leaf for 3 consecutive years!)
2. Where did it come from? The Autograph Tree is a non-native to Hawaii. It originated in the Caribbean and Florida Keys although has been introduced to many tropical places as an ornamental. Documented uses include the fruits being used as game balls, sap as a tar, and timber for wood burning. It was brought on Hawaii in about 1934 and has become naturalized on all of the islands. You can generally find them in lower elevations and coastal areas. Here on Kauai, one of the best examples of a tree loaded with “signed” leaves is in the parking lot of the Kauai Coffee Plantation visitor center. You can also find mostly “unsigned” leafed trees in the Kukui Grove east parking lot, Home Depot and Costco parking lots.
3. When is the best time for collecting? Flowering and fruiting happens all year long, but I suggest not picking them up after a heavy rain because they tend to rot. Before the fruit matures it looks similar to a green apple but when it opens, it looks similar to a star. Filled will an abundance of red sticky seeds which often are eaten by ants and birds, the fruit is not touched by wildlife-probably because it's poisonous-falling to the ground open, mostly perfect, and in great plentitude! As the fruits dry, they will close back up but the color darkens to a burnt orange, reminding some of a dried orange or pumpkin.
4. How are the collected plant parts used? I use the leaves because of their variety of sizes, toughness, color and the fact they can be trimmed easily if needed. The fruit can be dried open(my favorite) or allowed to dry closed. Often others use the fruits in wreathes, as Christmas ornaments or in potpourri mix for its unique color and texture. Each of our baskets or pouches includes an Autograph Tree leaf.
*Amy is a University of Hawaii Certified Master Gardener Emeritus, has a Bachelor of Science-Landscape Horticulture degree from Ohio State, has been a volunteer tour guide at NTBG, and is a self-proclaimed "plant nut"! She and her husband Ron have been making and selling their baskets for more than 20 years.