The etymology of town names in Singapore can be easily traced back to historical figures, historical functions or distinct characteristics of the said area. Sembawang is one such example, being named after the Sembawang Tree.
Better known as Mesua ferruginea (but recently its scientific name has been updated to Kayea ferruginea) to most in the horticulture industry, this native tree used to be a common sight in the once swampy lands of Sembawang, occurring naturally along river banks and streams in forests across Singapore and Penninsula Malaysia. It is now, however, presumed nationally extinct and is rarely spotted around its town’s namesake.
This tree grows much larger in its natural habitat, reaching heights of around 16m and above, sometimes exceeding 30m. The texture of the leaves resemble the leathery dark green of a Calophyllum inophyllum, but are shaped like leaves from Mangifera indica and sport an opposite leaf arrangement. Together with its close branching habit, this tree can become unkempt if allowed to grow wild.
Its flowers are typical of those from the Calophyllaceae family, sporting 4 white petals with multiple stamens emerging from its centre and are arranged in axillary racemes (non-branching inflorescences growing from the leaf axil).
Its round, fleshy fruits have an interesting growth habit that puzzles us; it is wrapped with brown, rugged sepals that don’t fully cover around its flesh, allowing some portions on the top to be exposed. We aren’t sure if it’s edible but will give it a try if we get the chance!
Although presumed nationally extinct, the most well known specimen in Sembawang can be thankfully found near the entrance of car park 1 at Sembawang Park!
National Parks Board, Singapore, NParks Flora and Fauna Web, accessed at