A Hawaii Artist discovers beauty and more in Island Sourced Materials!
Skunk Tree-Sterculia foetida
-4 Things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? Skunk Tree is truly a unique plant which offers beauty , shade, and once a year putrid smell, hence it’s name. It is a member of the Malvaceae or Hibiscus family. It is a soft-wooded tree which can grow to around 115’ with a rounded canopy of 20’-30’. Its bark is gray brown, and rough. It’s branches are arranged in whorls or circular fashion around the branches and the glossy green leaves are at the end of each branchlet. The leaf stem is fairly long with each leaf being comprised of 7-9 leaflets arranged palmately-like a hand. The multi-branched panicled flowers generally bloom from late January to March in Hawaii and are the source of the “rotten meat” smell. Once the fruits/pods begin to form, the smell is gone (luckily). Each of the Skunk Tree’s fruits are divided into segments of anywhere from 1-5 follicles. These attractive 4-5” long by 2-4” wide heart-shaped woody pods start green, become bright red and hard to miss. Eventually as they mature, they turn more of a dark brown splitting open to reveal 10-15 1” pearly blue seeds each. The pods, like the Earpod, take 11 months to form. The tree is considered an attractive ornamental, just not one to plant near a house, is fairly adaptable to a variety of soil types, but is quite sensitive to lower temperatures, so is confined to full sun in just subtropical and tropical climate zones. It can be partially deciduous losing some or all of it leaves.
2. Where did it come from? The Skunk Tree is native to Queensland Australia, and Tropical Asia. It was brought to Hawaii in 1911 by Joseph Rock an Austrian born botanist who migrated to Hawaii in 1907, became a leading authority of Hawaiian plants and eventually curator for the University of Hawaii until1920, when he left to continue his botanical adventures. The oily seeds from the Skunk Tree pods are known to be used for lighting, lubricants, and in soap-making. The unripe seeds are not edible but eaten when roasted, tasting similar to chestnuts, but must be eaten in moderation due to their laxative properties. The wood is pinkish, easily worked and used for furniture, boats and musical instruments. The leaves have been used as animal fodder and the resin from the trunk as a glue. Leaves, flowers have been used in traditional medicine and the oil from the seeds contains properties promising favorable pharmacological applications as well as potential biodiesel and insect deterrent. In 1975, the Skunk Tree was added to Oahu’s exceptional tree list protecting 3 known elderly trees on the University of Hawaii/Manoa Campus, Schofield Barracks, and another on Prospect Street for their historic and/or cultural value.
3. When is the best time for collecting?
We collect the seed pods whenever we find them. They, like most pods, are best picked up before they have laid around too long to preserve their colors and integrity. They store well in open-air containers indefinitely.
4. How are the collected plant parts used?
In my research, I found that they are often strung into lei. We use them as a decorative element on both baskets and pouches and generally use just 1/2 of a pod due to their size.
*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.