Polyalthia longifolia

Common name: Indian mast tree

Other common names: Cemetery tree, Indian fir, Mast tree, Mara illupai

Names in non-English languages: Philippines India

Description

Originating in India and Sri Lanka, this landscape tree grows moderately slowly to between 10 and 18 m (30 and 60 ft) tall. 

There are two varieties in cultivation. The more striking, var. pendula, has short branches that droop and hug a straight, slim trunk resulting in a narrow columnar shape not usually seen in tropical trees. The less common variety, var. angustifolia, has branches that are more wide-spreading, forming a pyramidal crown. The bark is grey and smooth.

The leaves are lance-shaped with wavy margins and lime green to dark green, depending on their age. They remain on the tree in all seasons in a dense arrangement, cloaking and almost completely hiding the trunk in lush greenery from near the bottom to the top of the tree.

For a brief period in spring, masses of pale yellow-green, star-shaped flowers bloom amid the leaves. They are followed by green coffee-berry-like fruit with a single seed, ripening to dark purple or near black from summer to autumn. 

Use

The narrowly shaped weeping variety, var. pendula, is widely cultivated as a street tree in India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia for its unusual, compact form and lush green foliage. When closely spaced it forms a tall hedge useful for privacy screening, shade or as a windbreak.

The small diameter trunk produces a yellowish to grey-white wood of medium weight, averaging out at around 590 kilograms per cubic meter (37 lbs per cubic ft), but with low natural resistance to rot and decay. It is reportedly only suitable for making light articles such as matches and pencils, though it is also crafted into musical drums in parts of its native range.

Climate

Grows naturally in sub-humid to humid subtropical and tropical lowland to mid-elevation climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 15 to 25 °C, annual highs of 26 to 34 °C, annual rainfall of 600 to 2600 mm and a dry season of 8 months or less.

Growing

New plants are usually started from seed, which remain viable only for a short time. After they are collected, the ripe fruit are left in the open for the rind to rot and soften, so that the seed can be easily removed. The seed are then washed and air-dried under shade. Most germinate within two to three weeks and the young seedlings cared for in a nursery for around a year before being planted out. Care should be taken when transplanting to not damage the delicate roots.

It performs best on sites with full to partial sun exposure and on rich, free-draining clay, loam and sand soils of a slightly acid to neutral nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5. Young plants need protection from winds, especially under hot, dry conditions but once established have good tolerance to drought.

Problem features

The fruit attract feeding bats and birds which disperse the seed. However, there does not appear to be any records of its escape and naturalisation anywhere, despite it being widely cultivated outside of its native range. It is assessed as a low weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).

Where it will grow

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