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  • Writer's pictureEu Jin Koh

The (Kampong) Gelam Tree (Melaleuca cajuputi)

Moving on to the 3rd part of our series on towns named after trees, we shift our attention towards an area inhabited by the Malay royalty and aristocracy of Singapore’s past. Kampong Glam, also known as Kampung Gelam, was allocated by Sir Stamford Raffles during the British colonial era to the Malay and Arab communities as part of the Jackson plan, which aimed to organise the townships surrounding the bustling ports along Singapore’s waterways.


Kampong (or Kampung), is a Malay word that means compound, and refers to the traditional villages that once lay abundant around Singapore. Gelam on the other hand, refers to the tree that we know as Melaleuca cajuputi. In Malay, this tree is also known as Kayu Putih (white wood), which likely refers to the off-white coloured bark of the tree.



Gelam tree Melaleuca cajuputi Arborist

A mature Melaleuca cajuputi tree


While it was never as abundant as the Tampines Tree, its uses were plentiful for the natives. In the past, its timber and bark were essential components for boat construction by the Orang Laut for, with its hardwearing and uniform wood being long lasting and easy to work with. The flaky nature of its bark also makes it an ideal material to construct the sails of the boats, bending flexibly as it catches the wind that powers them.




Gelam Tree Bark Singapore

White, papery bark that peels


The Gelam tree is perhaps better known for the oils that lay inside its papery and lanceolate leaves. Extracted from the leaves through a distillation process, cajeput oil has well documented antimicrobial properties and is used in ointments, medicated oils and other related medical purposes. Most notably, it forms a significant component of the popular Tiger Balm ointment!



Tiger Balm Gelam Tree oil

The writer’s life is incomplete without Tiger Balm


Ethnobotanical uses aside, it is a well loved tree in the Horticulture sector in Singapore for many reasons. Its beautiful peeling white bark and silvery leaves make it a great addition to silver gardens or to brighten up a landscape. Fast growing and resistant to both drought and waterlogged conditions, its crown grows in a way that provides a decent amount of shade to everything below. When in bloom, its creamy bottlebrush-like flowers cover the tree, attracting a litany of bees and sunbirds that feed busily on them.



Kampomg Gelam tree

Spot the bees amongst the flowers!



Kampong Gelam tree fruit

Prolific fruiting


A word of caution however.


Due to the high number of fruits that it produces after each flowering cycle, the Gelam tree has the potential to proliferate an area in a short amount of time. Combined with its hardiness against harsh urban conditions, regular maintenance and/ or weeding of saplings needs to be done to avoid it taking over the landscape.




Sources

National Parks Board, Singapore, accessed at:




Uforest, Singapore, accessed at:

Jake. (2015) Melaleuca cajuputi (Powell) Urban Forest: Flora of Singapore and Southeast Asia. https://uforest.org/plants/species?q=Melaleuca_cajuputi. Last updated 10 Dec 2018. Accessed 23 Jul 2023.


Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore, accessed at:


VisitSingapore.com, Singapore, accessed at:



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