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Full text of "The cannon-ball tree : the monkey-pots"




5d0 ■■^■ 

no. 1-10 

Return this book on or before the 
Latest Date stamped below. 

University of Illinois Library 

l\\K- O O 1,1 


DEC 10 1987 

1.161 — 114', 




APR 15 1S25 

Published by 




No. 1. Figs . . . . ' $ .10 

No. 2. The Coco Palm .10 

No. 3. Wheat 10 

No. 4. Cacao 10 

No. 5. A Fossil Flower 10 

No. 6. The Cannon Ball Tree 10 




THE mum 


•"-■■7 : ; . 

Photograph by Mr. H. Lang 

Figure 1 

m mm) 

i APR 15 1925 


Field Museum of Natural History 

Chicago, 1924 

Leaflet Number 6 


The Cannon-ball tree^ is one of the most curious 
of the many remarkable forest trees of the South 
American tropics. In general aspect and habit of 
gro\\i;h it bears some resemblance to a large elm, 
though with larger leaves massed at the tips of the 
slender twdgs. It is, however, distinguished from all 
other trees by the tangle of crooked branches which 
surround the lower part of its trunk. In the flower- 
ing and fruiting state it is an extraordinary sight. 

The foliage is borne mostly overhead by the as- 
cending limbs which reach toward the light. The 
lower leafless branches, bent and curved in many 
directions, terminate in clusters of buds and showy 
flowers and are in addition usually laden with large 
globular fruits. It is the size and appearance of the 
fruits that have given to the tree its conmion name. 
Indeed, they can best be described by comparing them 
to rusty cannon-balls. The ground around the base 
of the tree is generally littered with fallen fruits and 
their remains in various stages of decay. These give 
off an unmistakable corpse-like odor, which on closer 
acquaintance with this tree is found to be characteris- 
tic also of the freshly cut wood. 

The flowers are unusual in shape and appear at 
first sight to be somewhat orchid-like, though too large 
and too brilliantly hued to sustain the resemblance on 
closer inspection. Their fleshy petals are salmon pink 
to crimson madder in color on the inner surface, 

1. Couroupita guianensis AubL 


2 Field Museum of Natural History 

white with a dash of yellow on the outside. The pe- 
culiar and characteristic feature of the flower is seen 
to be a curved, hood-like structure, glistening white, 
terminating in a pink-tinted fringe. It is an exten- 
sion of the fleshy disk which bears the stamens, and 
functions as an annex or auxiliary to it. Several hun- 
dred small stamens are closely set on the disk sur- 
rounding the low pistil; as many more, somewhat 
larger ones, are borne on the inner surface of the tip 
of this recurved hood overhanging the others. The 
large black bumble-bees that visit the flowers force 
their way under the tip of the hood, between the two 
sets of stamens, and become thoroughly dusted with 

The flowering of the cannon-ball tree is said to 
be almost continuous, but in Guiana an abundance of 
flowers is found early in the year when the fruits on 
the tree measure six to eight inches in diameter. These 
are the fruits of the preceding year, which, requiring 
some eighteen months to ripen, remain on the tree 
till the new crop of fruit is well advanced. 

The old fruits have a rough, leathery exterior cov- 
ering a thin woody shell. This is filled with a juicy 
pulp in which the seeds are imbedded. The fresh pulp 
is stated in some botanical works to be of an agreeable 
flavor and is said (in spite of the odor) to be used by 
the natives for a cooling medicinal drink. The seeds 
are not considered edible. 

J. E. Warren, in a book on "Para, or Scenes and 
Adventures on the Banks of the Amazon", quotes a 
French writer on the tropics who speaks of this tree. 
After describing the tranquility of the streams, the 
soft murmurs with which they trickle through the 
grass, the verdure with which they endow the plants, 
this eloquent author continues : "But when the silence 
of nature is broken by these violent hurricanes, which 
too often in the torrid zone blast all the hopes of the 


OF m 


Photograph by Mr. H. Lang 

Figure 2 




Figure 8 

The Cannon-Ball Tree 3 

cultivator, you may hear the report of the fruit of 
the cannon-ball tree, whose bursting produces an oft- 
repeated echo, and resembles the rolling fire of a dis- 
charge of artillery." On the strength of the name 
the vivid imagination of the writer ascribes the qual- 
ities of ordnance in action to the fruit of this mock 
munitions tree. 

The peculiar position of the flowers around the 
lower part of the trunk is characteristic of many other 
tropical forest trees, among these the related Anchovy 
Pear- and the well-known Cacao tree^ In both of 
these the flowers spring directly from buds formed by 
the deeper layers of the bark. In the cannon-ball tree, 
branches which have no direct connection with the 
wood of the tree grow out from the bark and, increas- 
ing in length, bear the flowers from year to year, for 
many years. Distinct as these are from the foliage 
branches, it happens occasionally that one of the 
fruiting limbs also puts forth leaves. 

The cannon-ball tree was first described by the 
pioneer botanist Aublet in French Guiana. It grows, 
however, in the other Guianas also, in fact, in places 
over the entire northern part of South America from 
Brazil to Central America and in the lesser Antilles. 
More than half a dozen species are recognized. A 
single tree of this kind exists in the United States, 
having been planted at Fort Meyers, Florida, where 
it grows outside of the tropics better than might be 


The hard-shelled triangular seeds known as Para 
or Brazil-nuts are produced by trees nearly related to 
the cannon-ball tree. The Brazil-nut trees* are among 

2. Grias cauliflora L. 

3. Theobroma Cacao L. 

4. Two species, Bertholletia excelsa H.B.K. and B. nobilis Miers. 


4 Field Museum of Natural History 

the giants of the South American forest. Raising 
their convex crowns to a height of sometimes a hun- 
dred and fifty feet or more, they tower over the sur- 
rounding vegetation of the riverbanks. Their thick 
cyhndrical stems are straight and barely taper for 
seventy to a hundred feet from the ground, at which 
height the branches begin to spread. 

The fruits of the Brazil-nut trees resemble can- 
non-ball fruits of small to medium size, but have a 
much thicker v/oody shell. Each fruit contains from 
fifteen to twenty-four closely packed seeds ("nuts"). 
Unlike the cannon-ball fruits they grow in a more 
ordinary manner on the smaller branches in the lofty 
top of the trees. Richard Spruce, the botanist of the 
Amazon, met an old gentleman, Don Diego, who re- 
membered Humboldt and Bonpland and recounted 
their difficulty in procuring the flowers of the Juvia'' 
or Brazil-nut tree, for which they offered an ounce 
of gold. The fruits can be collected only when they 
fall to the ground on ripening. Although the cannon- 
ball fruit, in spite of the name, never functions as a 
projectile, the Brazil-nut fruits, are dreaded as bombs. 
Their weight is not inconsiderable and the momentum 
acquired by them as they drop is so great that the 
fruit becomes imbedded in the ground. 

The collecting of Brazil-nuts is performed mostly 
by Indians, who at the proper seasons make their way 
in canoes up the rivers on the banks of which these 
trees grow. On account of falling fruits the work is 
somev/hat hazardous, but to protect themselves the 
collectors wrap their heads with skins of the common 
howler monkey or provide themselves with wooden 
bucklers which they hold over their heads while gath- 
ering the fallen fruits and digging them from the 

5. The name by which these trees are known on the Orinoco. 
The Brazilians call them "Castanheiras" or chestnut 
trees, the seeds "Castanhas" or chestnuts. 


The Cannon-Ball Tree 5 

ground. The extremely hard shell of the fruit yields 
to a few blows of an ax and the nuts are gathered into 
baskets with which the canoes are filled. 

The large rodents of the region are able to open 
the fallen fruits by means of their powerful incisor 
teeth, especially after decay has partly softened the 
shell. The larger monkeys, who are also fond of the 
seeds, are said sometimes to seize the favorable mo- 
ment to drive the rodents away and to snatch the 
coveted contents for themselves. 

The Brazil-nut trees, of which two species are 
recognized, grow in Guiana, in Venezuela and in Bra- 
zil. Most of the nuts which appear in the northern 
markets come from the Amazon region above the Rio 
Negro, and are sent to Para. Since the decline of the 
South American rubber industry they form perhaps 
the most important article of export of this city on 
the Equator. 


Both of the trees described above belong botan- 
ically to the family of the monkey pots.*^ which has 
many other representatives in the South American 
rain-forest region. The name monkey pots has refer- 
ence to the characteristic shape of the fruit, which is 
like a vase or small urn with the opening neatly closed 
by a lid. The seeds are packed within these containers, 
more or less after the manner of Brazil-nuts. There 
are many species of monkey pot trees and bushes, dif- 
fering from each other in the particular size and 
configuration of their fruits as well as in various other 

The best known of all is the Great Monkey Pot 
Tree" which in size is second only to the Brazil-nut 

6. {Lecythidacese, from the Greek \r]Kvdo<;, oil-vase). 

7. Lecythis grandiflora Aubl. The Brazilian name for the tree 

is "castanheira de macaco", monkey chestnut tree. 


6 Field Museum of Natural History 

trees. Its fruits measure six to seven inches in diam- 
eter. The lid closing this seed pot becomes detached 
at maturity while the fruits still hang on the trees, 
affording a feast for parrots and monkeys who fight 
over the seeds. "The battle-cry of both of these ani- 
mals then resounds far and wide in the forest", says 
the botanist-traveler Ave-Lallemant. The seeds are 
called monkey chestnuts. 

The most important of the other species of 
monkey pots are the Sapucaya^ trees, yielding the 
"nuts" known by this name, which are occasionally 
to be seen in our northern fruit-shops. They are never 
as abundant as Brazil-nuts, largely for the reason that 
the falling fruits become scattered on the ground and 
therefore are not easily obtained in large quantities. 
The native collector, besides, must compete with ro- 
dents and peccaries and with boring beetles. 

A flowering branch of a Guiana tree of the 
monkey pot family is shown in figure 5. 

The fruits of other members of the family are 
known as monkey's drinking cups, monkey pipe, water 
case, etc. The bark and bast of some is used for 
cordage and caulking material. At least one species" 
furnishes a common substitute for cigarette paper. 

A story, for the truth of which only one well 
familiar with the behavior of wild monkeys could 
vouch, relates to the use alleged to be made of such 
fruits for the capture of these animals. Being in- 
ordinately fond of the nuts of some monkey pots, 
monkeys will readily insert the hand into an open fruit 
used as bait. Being also greedy by nature, they will, 
if at all apprehensive of disturbance, quickly seize the 
largest possible handful, in fact, too many nuts to ex- 

8. Lecythis Amazonii Mart, and several other species. 

9. Eschweilera corrugata Miers, the so-called hill variety of 

"Kakeralli", or "Wena" of British Guiana. 






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Figure 5 

{Gustavia augusta) 

The Cannon-Ball Tree 7 

tract at one time through the orifice of the fruit. Un- 
willing even in the face of danger to release their hold 
they become victims of their stubborn greed and are 
easily captured. 


Other members of this tropical family are found 
in the eastern hemisphere. These are mostly smaller 
trees and differ widely from any already mentioned. 
Their fruits and flowers would scarcely be recognized 
as related to the monkey-pots by those uninitiated 
into the mysteries of botanical classification or famil- 
iar only with the western forms. The principal ones 
are the African Napoleavxi, Emperor Napoleon's 
flower, of the Niger and adjacent country, and the 
Barringtonias of the Indo-Malayan region. 

Of the latter there are many species, scattered 
over a wide area extending from East Africa and In- 
dia, over the islands of the East Indian Archipelago 
and of Oceanica, even to Australia. The one figured 
here is typical. It grows in the river-forests of the 
Moluccas. Floating Barringtonia fruits are familiar 
objects of the tidal drift in the oriental tropics. They 
are pyramidal in shape, with four bulging faces and 
rounded edges, of a tan-colored leathery exterior, and 
light as cork. The single large seed within begins to 
germinate early and is usually in an advanced stage 
of development when the fruit floats out to sea. The 
ground-up seedlings thrown in the water serve the 
natives as fish-poison. 

The flowers of this Barringtonia are beautiful 
but short-lived. Their four white petals and numer- 
ous long madder-tipped stamens are displayed only at 
night, dropping with the advent of daylight. 

B. E. Dahlgren. 


Field Museum of Natural History 

A trunk of a Cannon-ball tree, obtained in British 
Guiana by the Stanley Field Guiana expedition of 1922, is 
exhibited in the Hall of Plant Life, Hall 29 on the second 
floor east. 

This bearing trunk has been restored to life-like ap- 
pearance, with the perishable parts reproduced in durable 
form, through the generosity of Mr. Stanley Field. 

A case containing other fruits of the Monkey pot 
Family, Brazil-nuts, Sapucaya nuts, etc., together with a 
branch of a Barringtonia, is also to be found in Hall 29. 


Figure 6 


(Barringtonia speciosa)