The Tree With Upside Down “Pots”

One of my favourite trees is the Monkey Pot. Known scientifically as Lecythis pisonis, it comes from South America, where it is commonly called Sapucaia.

What makes this tree interesting is the unusual woody fruits that it produces – they look just like upside-down pots dangling from the branches. When ripe, the ‘lid’ of the pot falls off to reveal nuts inside that attract all sorts of fauna. 

The Tree With Upside Down “Pots”
The unusual woody fruit of the Monkey Pot tree resembles a pot and can be used as a container.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Monkeys in South America are known to put their hands inside the pots to claim the nutritious brown seeds, which are attached to the inside of the pot by a cream coloured aril.

Related to Brazil nuts, the seeds of the Monkey Pot are highly nutritious and rich in oil that can be used for soap-making or burned as a source of light. They are said to have a taste similar to macadamia nuts or fresh young coconut flesh.

The pots can be used as containers, and in some places, artisans turn them into attractive planters. The tree has a number of other uses as well. It is planted as a shade tree, its leaves and bark are reportedly used to treat muscle pain and rheumatism, and its wood is used in construction.

Interesting Flowers

The Monkey Pot’s flowers are as interesting as its fruits. They are purplish white, fragrant, and have six petals surrounding a central structure that contains the reproductive parts.

The Tree With Upside Down “Pots”
The flowers of the Monkey Pot tree. Photo credit: Nura Abdul Karim

While the flowers on the branches can be difficult to get a close look at, given that the Monkey Pot can reach more than 20 m in height, those that fall to the ground are easy to admire. Shedding their petals at some point, the remnants of the flowers that tend to cover the ground beneath a flowering tree look like little clam shells. 

The Tree With Upside Down “Pots”
The remnants of fallen flowers beneath a Monkey Pot tree in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The stamens are contained within a specialised hood that helps to keep pollen robbers out. In its native habitat, the Monkey Pot is pollinated by carpenter bees, which are large enough to lift the hood to enter the flower.

The flowers are reminiscent of the Cannonball (Couroupita guianensis) – another of my favourite trees. In fact, the Monkey Pot and Cannonball are in the same family, the Lecythidaceae, and come from the same region in South America.

The Tree With Upside Down “Pots”
(Left) The pried-open central structure of a fallen Monkey Pot flower, and (right) a Cannonball flower on a tree in the Gardens.

Finding the Trees
The Singapore Botanic Gardens has three mature Monkey Pots, all designated as Heritage Trees. Two of these are just next to each other along the path behind the Bandstand, and the third can be found near Swan Lake on Lawn E.

Anyone interested in taking a look at a Cannonball tree can find these in the Gardens as well – there is a lovely Heritage Tree specimen in the Ginger Garden that’s worth a trip to see.

The Tree With Upside Down “Pots”
The two Monkey Pot trees near the Bandstand in the Gardens. All three of the Gardens’ Monkey Pots are Heritage Trees that date to the 1920s.

The Gardens’ Monkey Pot trees provide habitat for many native plants and animals. Their branches are homes for numerous epiphytes, and the Gardens’ squirrels love to gobble up the seeds with their fleshy arils. The two trees near the Bandstand fruit frequently, suggesting that their flowers also provide food for native pollinators.

The Tree With Upside Down “Pots”
Caption: One of the Monkey Pot trees near the Bandstand, covered in epiphytes.

 

Interested in learning more about trees that make up our urban forest? Check out trees.sg, our online map which shows the locations of over 500,000 trees, features interesting bites of information on unique tree species, and even lets you show some love to your favourite tree by leaving it a treemail and giving it a hug!

Get up close and personal with some of the trees on our island by going on a walking or cycling trail in our parks, gardens and park connectors. Besides admiring the trees, you can also potentially spot biodiversity. Lean more about going on a DIY walk.


Mature trees are part of the natural heritage of Singapore, serving as important green landmarks in our City in a Garden. These trees help us identify with and stay rooted to the place we call home. The Heritage Tree Scheme, started in 2001, advocates the conservation of Singapore’s mature trees. Learn more about how you can nominate a tree for this scheme.

Text and photos by Ada Davis

 

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