THE Madagascar Almond tree (Terminalia mantaly, or umbrella tree) was introduced from Madagascar Island in East Africa. It is a native terrestrial tree of the subtropics zone, and well-adapted to the conditions in the South East Asia region.
Many call it ‘buchida’, but it is not the black olive plant at all – except that the foliage of one bears some resemblance to the other.
It is perennial auto-tropics tree of medium height, especially good for landscape use.
We first came across it in Sarawak only about 25 years ago – for a small plant, it fetch a very high value at the time. The supply was limited at first, but it was selling like hot cakes.
The price, at the time, was RM100 for a two-foot plant with a whorl of branch.
The taller one, with three whorls, went for RM1,000!
The first-comers were the green variety, not the tri-colour type.
Later, some nurseries introduced the budded grey-leaf trees, which were more expensive!
The grey-leaf tree is budded using the green-leaf variety as stock, and the silvery grey budwood, as the grey-leaf variety does not flower in the tropical zone here.
The green variety bears flowers and set small fruits – each as a drupe, with a single seed that is good for germination. The drupe is covered with a husk embedding the black seed inside. Germination would go faster if the husk had been broken before sowing.
I remember one of my ex-colleagues bringing in seeds from the peninsula, to be planted in polybags – he wanted to sell the seedling for RM50 each, and this was in the 2000s! Another good commercial investor brought in the grey variety, about two feet tall each, and grew one acre of the so-called ‘buchida’ nursery.
In a matter of a few months, the trees had grown well – achieving height of about six feet, and he made a fortune.
The large trees later made their way to Sarawak – well-packed to meet the plant quarantine specifications, they were shipped here for landscape sale.
Traits of the tree
The morphology of the tree is attractive – the bark is smooth and its pale-grey complexion is covered with spots, streaks and blotches. The leaves are small and greenish, with uneven crenate margins.
In Sarawak, the tree defoliates every season – dropping old leaves before the new flesh emerges. Mature foliage exudes a smooth, glossy or shiny appearance. Foliar venation is pinnate, with undulating or wavy margins; some surfaces are fully green, and some have white venation.
The tree has a microphyll-type foliar area with intermediate canopy.
The stem provides hard wood for furniture overseas.
The flowers are bisexual – the size is small, gathering into white clusters along inflorescence spike to 5cm.
Mature trees could bear fruits, as drupe, and drop them once they mature – I do collect them for propagation.
New planting materials can be obtained by germinating the seeds from the mature trees, specifically the green variety.
Some have advocated that stem-cuttings could be successful for new plants – I have yet to try this method, except the grafting for the grey variety as the mature grey-leaf type trees neither bear flowers nor drupe under local condition.
Planting is best done under full sun; a shady area would stunt growth.
The plant is drought-tolerant when established.
Water requirement is only moderate, and the plant requires low maintenance.
To my surprise, the plant requires shallow soil depth – I have planted one over one-foot soil covering the concrete base of the garden.
It has been growing for a few years and is about 18 feet tall now, having eight to nine whorls of leaves.
Cultivation and care
Planting materials can be propagated using the seeds of the green variety; the grey variety produces neither flower nor seed in our local environment.
To get the seeds, we collect the drupe after it has fallen from the trees and then, soften the husk in water before sowing. Prepare the seed-beds using compost and some natural top soil without fertiliser, but keep the medium damp – better still, cover the top with some grass straws to prevent water evaporation and place the beds in a shady location.
Following germination, allow it to grow up to a foot tall before transplanting it into a bigger pot, with the medium mixed with some NPK fertiliser to speed up growth.
Field-planting could be done after it has grown the first whorl of leaves.
For the grey-leaf variety, the new planting material is obtained by grafting the scion of the green-leaf variety with the budwood from the grey plant.
Some sources have been quoted using matured cuttings, which could propagate the grey-leaf plant too.
Field-planting needs full sunlight, as shady areas can stunt growth.
The plant is tolerant to drought and to my surprise, I have it planted one on the lawn with only about one-foot deep soil – meaning the tree is able to survive by having tap roots and branching out side roots.
The tree is already about 18 feet tall now. The only problem in terms of growth is that the tree must have sufficient nutrients; otherwise, the generation of the second whorl and upper layers would grow very slow, or they might just remain dormant.
Thus, the beginners who planted this landscape plant met with many failures, to a point that they asked me to replace it with other plants.
Pruning needs to be done on the whorls to obtain the best formations and shapes – giving good looks for the landscape. I have seen many plants at the roadsides across the city not being pruned, rendering the trees ‘a bit wild’ for beautification of the landscape.
Planting in a small group of three is quite a popular choice among many homeowners, despite the land shortage. The only trouble is the fallen leaves, which form a layer of debris over what should have been a beautiful lawn.
Thus, removing the dead leaves is a must for landscape maintenance.
I hope everyone would experience joy in planting this ‘foreign tree’.