The Valuable Candlenut Tree

Once in a while we come across a plant species whose exact origin is unknown. A well-known example is the Coconut Palm, because its fruit, or seednut, is capable of both floating in ocean water and resisting salt’s toxic effects, allowing it to spread to many tropical and subtropical locales. But in most other cases a plant’s origin is unknown because humans living long ago found the species so valuable that they started to grow it wherever climate and soils permitted. The Candlenut Tree is such a plant, and it has been described as “one of the world’s great domesticated multipurpose trees.”

The Candlenut Tree (Aleurites moluccana) is almost certainly native to Southeast Asia and western Polynesia, but it proved so useful to humans that they quickly distributed it to far-flung lands as maritime traffic increased. One of its shorter migrations was to Hawaii, where the island chain’s early Polynesian settlers probably introduced it. Today the Kukui, as it is known, is the state tree of Hawaii.

Aleurites moluccana grows to about 80 ft. in the moist lowland forests of Hawaii, where it has become naturalized, but in southern Florida it normally matures to no more than half that size. Its large fuzzy leaves are usually trilobed, but occasionally five-lobed. The tree’s small, fragrant, white-green flowers are held in clusters, and its fruit consists of a hard elliptical shell that commonly contains two or three seeds.

The Candlenut, also known as Indian Walnut and Varnish Tree, has multiple uses. Its fruit shells have been incorporated in costume jewelry. In Hawaii, its oil-rich seeds traditionally were, after shelling and roasting, strung together on the midrib of a coconut palm leaf to create a candle known as a kalikukui. Multiple kalikukuis would sometimes be assembled into torches. Oil extracted from the seeds has been used in paints and varnishes, and oil cakes have served as cattle food and fertilizer. The oil can also be applied to wood to protect it much like linseed oil. Its quality is good enough to be used even in high-performance racecars. In addition, the Candlenut has medicinal qualities whose applications vary from place to place in the countries where it has been introduced.

This very interesting tree is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 7-gal. containers.

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