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Seedy encounter on the riverbank

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City authorities have assured the citizenry that the green grassy banks of the Siem Reap River are devoid of landmines, unexploded ordinance and cluster bombs.

But nobody has warned that the river banks are home to a stand of downright dangerous South American jungle trees that are more than just trees – they are arboreal armories.
The trees’ trunks and branches are equipped with rows of razor-sharp spikes.

The seeds can be toxic. The sap can stun fish and is used by South American Indians to make poison arrows and was, until recently, used by the US government to manufacture tear gas. The sap can also be a component of the South American hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca.

And if that wasn’t enough, the trees are also equipped with exploding seed pods – large capsules “with explosive dehiscence”.

These pods might look like things of beauty but they are in fact devious devices, seeds of destruction that literally go bang in the night.

I chanced upon a couple of seed pods during my daily early morning stroll along the banks of the Siem Reap River. They looked like exquisitely carved miniature pumpkins; nature’s very own decorative art, so I took them home and placed them on a shelf in my apartment.

This was not a move welcomed by Khmer True Love. She took a more derisive approach, regarding the seeds as mere junk that had no place in the home, and muttered at length about the inherent craziness of barangs.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the first of the pods dynamically exploded, followed by the sounds of crashing glass and the clatter of falling wood.

It sounded like a gun had been fired in the room, and the shrapnel from the exploding pod blew away items on the shelf including blown glass figurines from Battambang.

Khmer True Love awoke and screamed. I jumped from bed and hopped about in a panic until I realised we weren’t the victims of a home invasion.

It gradually became evident that the pod was the villain.

Khmer True Love was far from happy, but we both settled down to regain sleep when “Bang!” – the second seed pod went off to even more dramatic effect.

Next morning, in between further tirades from Khmer True Love about intolerable barang craziness, I managed to identify the source of this botanical outrage.

Phnom Penh landscape designer Bill Grant said the seed pods were from the sandbox tree, or Hura crepitans tree.

Intensive web searches told me more about this tree, originally a South American species that has been widely dispersed globally. It’s mostly known as the Sandbox Tree because unexploded pods were cut
in half to make decorative pen sandboxes for the old-fashioned dip-the-nib-in-ink pens.

But it has many other names such as Dynamite Tree or Monkey Pistol Tree due to its explosive qualities.

It’s also known as the Monkey No-Climb Tree due to the sharp thorns on its trunk and branches.

In Cambodia it’s known as the Rolous Barang tree, and Rolous town on the outskirts of Siem Reap is apparently so named because of the huge stand of these trees. Local kids use old unexploded seed pods to make wheels for toys.

I learned many lurid facts about this hellish tree, such as this which was published in a 1958 Florida State Horticultural Society report: “The sap and seed contain hurin or crepitin which resembles some snake venoms in action.”

The US humour site Cracked.com had this to say: “Tropical paradises are never what they seem. Coconuts rocket down from the sky like cannonballs, sharks infest the shark-infested waters and the island beaches are entangled in vague pop-philosophy references and psychobabble.

“On top of all this is the most unexpected menace of them all: fucking exploding fruit.

“Native to the tropics is the Sandbox Tree, a 100-foot tall exclamation point to the phrase ‘Do not touch’. Every inch of this towering monster is poisonous, and its trunk is laced with so many spikes it looks like a gladiator weapon. If this tree could walk, it would enslave humanity.

“If somehow you manage to get beyond its toxic bark and leaves (and the spikes, never forget the spikes), you still run the very high risk of getting pelted in the face with the natural equivalent of a fragmentation grenade.

“The Sandbox Tree’s seed pods are fist-sized fruit that, when ripe, explode with such force that they routinely wound nearby people and livestock.”

The tree also makes a star appearance in the book Villainous Vines and Other Evil Plants, which warns people to take cover when encountering the tree because: “The tangerine-sized seedpods of the sandbox tree can literally explode with a gunshot-like bang when the time is ripe, flinging flat seeds up to 300 feet at more than 150 miles per hour.

“Eat one of these previously projectile seeds, and you’ll double over with intestinal cramps…eat two or more, and you can add delirium, convulsions, and even death, to the list.”

I’ve not been able to establish how the tree came to Cambodia but the general consensus is that the French are to blame.

And perhaps it’s redundant to add that, in a Kingdom blighted by myriad explosive devices, we do not need a barang tree like this. You have been warned.

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