Untold lives blog

16 April 2013

Jungle trees and their uses

Mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, bananas, coconuts, durian… the first things come to mind when someone mentions “jungle trees”.  The British consume fruits imported from other parts of the world knowing that they cannot grow in the Northern European climate.  But our knowledge of tropical fruits stops short at their succulent taste and nutritional values.  It rarely occurs to us to consider how indigenous people forage for food in the rain forest and take advantage of jungle trees in their daily life. 

A recently acquired booklet came to our attention: Some Jungle Trees and their uses, printed in 1944 by the British Southern Army under the order of Lt-Gen Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse during the campaigns of Pacific War against the Japanese invasion of South East Asia.

Cover of Some Jungle Trees and their UsesIOPP/Mss Eur F670/2  Noc

The handbook was intended for European soldiers and airmen if they were stranded in Asian jungles, as an instruction manual on how to identify different species of tropical trees and plants native to South and South East Asia, and how to make use of them as survival aids.  The compiler of the book must have drawn much of the information and wisdom from the local inhabitants knew how to utilise the trees to find food, build shelters, make tools, construct vessels and design traps to hunt animals.  

With illustrations and diagrams, the book describes various species of trees pointing out the “Useful Products”, and enumerating the beneficial and harmful parts of each tree.  It also offers tips on how to improvise in emergency situations.

Picture and description of cashew nut tree
IOPP/Mss Eur F670/2  Noc

One interesting example is how locals trap fish with semi-toxic seeds of particular plants.  For example, Millettia tree, alias the Moulmein Rosewood, found in Assam, Burma, and the Malay Peninsula, has these Useful Products: “the seeds of Millettia Pachcarpa can be used to intoxicate fish.  They are thrown into tanks or dammed up streams. The fish, after about two hours, are intoxicated and float unconscious upon the surface of the water, and are thus easily captured, and on recovery serve as useful food.”

Other useful tips include how to extract oil or wax from some nuts and seeds to make candles; how to find trees of which the bark or fruit yield dyes that can be used for camouflage; how to obtain water from tree trunk; how to improvise trapping devices and protection shields with thorny stems of creepers; how to make rope and cordage with the tough fibre in the inner bark; how to turn pulp of unripe fruit into gum in place of tar for sealing the seams of boat; how to identify hard wood and soft wood trees, as the former is excellent material for making cutting weapons, frameworks of rafts or jungle huts, and the pulp of soft wood makes good pillow stuffing, excellent insulation material and padding splints for broken limbs.

Picture and description of Cassia Fistula - Indian Laburnam
IOPP/Mss Eur F670/2  Noc

The book also lists medicinal values of some plants, for example, the black pulp from the seed pod of Cassia Fistula (Indian Laburnam) is listed as a “good laxative, but an excessive amount should not be taken.”


Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers   



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