Raintree nostalgia in Miri

Old raintrees along Jalan Raja in Miri.

“ARE the raintrees still there?” asked a friend who has been living overseas for decades.

She said one of the things she loved most about Miri was the lovely raintrees lining the main road where she grew up.

In the same way, I have had a long and loving relationship with raintrees. When I was young, one of our very young and enthusiastic temporary science teachers in primary school told us the raintrees in Sibu provided us with raindrops – and if we stayed under a rain tree, raindrops would fall on our head.

We even had a field trip to experience rain under a raintree. It was really cool under the arboreal shade.

We were to find out later from another science teacher that raintree leaflets are light sensitive and fold together on rainy or cloudy days.

He told us water drops came from the leaves and the tree is called Pukul Lima because the leaves fold at around 5pm every day.

When the raintree blooms, its crown is covered in clusters of pink-white flowers like small upturned brushes. These blooms attract honey bees, hence the tree is also known as honey tree.

When I moved to Miri, I enjoyed seeing lots of raintrees lining many roads. Their shape is beautiful and their silhouette resembles an open umbrella. I fell in love with raintrees all over again.

Raintrees on the roadside in Miri.

Cicada songs

Once, my friends and I had the opportunity to record the songs of cicadas singing to their hearts’ content in an ear-jarring rhapsody of chirping, buzzing, and rasping while at the same time, feasting on the sap of the raintrees.

Science for primary school pupils never seemed more real at that very moment of video recording in remote Bakong.

We told the pupils as we stood under the canopy of the giant raintree that the droplets falling on their heads were not raindrops (it wasn’t raining) but the sugary juice from the nectar of the flowers.

As the tree was flowering then, a lot of stamens were dropping all over the place. It was like fairies riding on the puffs, and landing right in front of us. That particular raintree must be more than 80 years old.

A Mirian who is very fond of trees and timber, John Jau, told thesundaypost, “The raintree is a medium-sized or large tree of potentially great size, often reaching 25 to 30 metres tall – occasionally 45 metres.

“It is a stately tree with heavy, nearly horizontal branches and an umbrella-shaped crown. You can find raintrees wherever there are old British government offices in Sarawak like Bekenu, Marudi.

“Unfortunately, contractors and land developers have bulldozed many of these majestic and historic trees in our state in the name of progress. The raintree timber is actually very valuable.”

He said he once had ‘the honour’ of cutting down a raintree in Miri. He could have the timber as long as he could take the tree down slowly. And that was exactly what he and his friend did, taking the tree down in a month of slow work.

And in his own words, he cut the tree down, ‘layer by layer’ – probably making a few table tops from the wood.

Lau and his friend also made use of the timber in other ways like for parang handles, drum-beaters and the like.

He said it was a labour of love.

“One should not hack a tree to death. The wood is often very cross-grained, making it difficult to work when dry, though remaining easy to work when green. That particular tree may even sprout some new branches and come alive again,” he said.

Epiphytes grow on an older raintree.

Strong and durable

Another woodcraftsman Felix Anjah chimed in, “The wood of the raintree is surprisingly strong, and durable. It is light yellow with some chocolate streaks in the middle or heart. Many Filipinos carve wooden bowls from raintrees and sell to tourists. It’s quite a good business really.”

He added that Venezuela and other South American countries also used raintree wood for making furniture, panelling, decorative veneers, turnery, platters, and other handicrafts – and surprisingly, ox cart wheels as well.

Felix said he had used quite a bit of raintree wood to make parang handles in the past whenever he could get some arm-sized branches, adding, “There was one time I collected quite a bit to share with my friends when an oil palm company trimmed its raintrees.”

A man who sells barbecue pork in the local market told thesundaypost, “Actually not many people know raintree wood also makes good firewood and charcoal. Whenever a raintree is uprooted, I will be the first one to ask for the free branches and cart them away happily.”

Perhaps the British officers and planters knew about the value of the raintree pods in the 1950s. These pods are a good source of protein, carbohydrates and minerals for livestock.

In India, they are consumed by cattle, goats, pigs and other domestic animals. Some South American companies used them to make dried fodder for dry season feeding. And actually that’s really good news for those thinking about the animal feed industry in Malaysia.

The sticky sweet-flavoured pulp of the pods is often eaten by children and can be used in fruit drinks. For instance, S saman is an important lac host plant in Thailand.

Remember the 1960 film ‘Swiss Family Robinson’? The tree house of the family was actually built on a 60-metre Albizia saman tree in Tobago.

The set was left intact after filming but destroyed by Hurricane Flora in 1963. The tree itself has survived, and is near Goldsborough, Tobago. The tree house of the movie fired the imagination of the younger generation of the 60s and 70s.

Can one find the oldest raintree in the world? On record, one of the oldest raintrees in the world was known as Saman del Guere, located near Maracay, Venezuela, and described in 1799 (10 years after the French Revolution) by Alexander von Humboldt.

It was 60 feet tall and its umbrella-shaped crown had a circumference of 576 feet and its trunk measured nine feet in diameter.

The large and majestic raintrees can be seen growing along many the roadsides in Miri, especially around the Emart area and a few stretches of roads from Miri Airport.

They provide plenty of shade and are truly good avenue trees, making the roads cool and providing shade to cyclists and pedestrians.

Mature raintrees with crowns spreading like umbrellas make them excellent shade trees, which create a green tunnel effect as seen in Sibu and some roads in Bintulu.

Old raintrees also attract a lot of birds, which add some poetry to the lives of urbanites with their songs. These trees are also good hosts to epiphytes like staghorn ferns and bird’s-nest ferns.

Due to the excellent shade it provides, the species was planted in the 1900s in coffee and nutmeg plantations in many parts of the world.

When oil palm estates were first introduced in Miri area, raintrees were planted. Hence, they are now found in Peninjau, Lambir, Bekenu, and their surrounding areas.

From Bakong to Bekenu, Lambir to Miri, raintrees can also be found. Three most majestic looking specimens can still be seen at the Lambir Estate, gracing the hill on which the manager’s house is situated.

Health enthusiasts often say exercising in Bulatan Park in Miri is very cool and refreshing. This is most probably due to the cooling raintrees that shade the park.

The trees have grown bigger over the years and their shade contributes to the lowering of temperatures at this park when other concretised areas of Miri may be three or even five degrees warmer.

Aesthetically, many people do look forward to seeing the pink raintree blossoms in Miri. During the flowering season, these flowers are quite a remarkable sight.

More raintrees should be planted in and around Miri to keep the Resort City cool. And hopefully, Miri will one day be known as the Raintree Keeper of Sarawak.

 

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