Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Cannonball Tree. - By Werner Schmidlin

The population of Cairns has considerable increased since we first came to North Queensland in 1958 and not many people know about this interesting tree in the Freshwater Valley Cairns. Publishing this story on my blog may create enough interest for newcomers to our beautiful area to go and have a look at this unusual tree. To see a picture of the wonderful blossoms and the balls on the trunk, click on the “German section” on the right side on the top of the page.
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It is most likely that not too many people have ever heard about, and much less seen a Cannonball Tree. Firstly, the tree is a native to South America, and secondly, there are not many to be found in Australia, with the exception of Botanical Gardens perhaps. To my knowledge there are only two trees in the Cairns area, a young insignificant one in the Cairns Botanical and the one I’m writing about. The Botanical name of this tree is: Couroupita – The Cannonball Tree. Family, Lecythidaceae. However, its old name was: “Couroupita guianensis” referring to the Guianas, where this real curiosity grows wild. Cannonball Trees can be grown easily from seed in a warm climate. Just don’t plant one in your garden.

Thank goodness Cannonball trees are not to be found in every garden! Dodging the head-size fruit as they come cannonading down the trunk in a rainstorm could become a real hazard, and the less is said about its decaying droppings (balls) the better. They are a sight to behold though, that every tree-lover would want to see at least once in a lifetime. What stunning botanical conversation piece! A 17 metre (50ft) tall tree which produces the flowers and the fruits (balls) on the trunk and not as usual high up on the branches. In season, the tree produces Hibiscus-sized flowers of a mixture of rich apricot pink, snow white and gold. They have a curious lop-sided mass of stamens and exude a strong fruity fragrance that can be smelt from afar.

The brown fruit hang in clusters from the top to the bottom of the tree trunk, suspended like balls on a string. They consist of a mass of seed, embedded in sickly greenish pulp, which to Westerners smells distinctly “off”. As the story goes, the South American natives, however, find the “inside” of the balls delicious, and squeeze a popular brew from it, which they drink from the hard empty outer shell.

Having introduced this interesting tree; let me tell you how I found it more than forty years ago. A friend of ours who knew that I love everything that is interesting, nice & beautiful, told me about a big unusual tree with ball-like fruit on the trunk. “It is right beside the road and close to the farmhouse of Lyon’s sugar cane farm, way back in the Redlynch Valley” (near Cairns N.Q.) he said. Being a natural stickybeak, I was dying to have a look at this tree at the first opportunity. Well, a nice sonny Sunday with blues skies presented that opportunity. “Let’s go for a drive,” I said to Karola (my wife) and the three young children. “Oh good,” was the emphatic reaction. “Where are we going?” they queried. “We’ll be going to the Redlynch Valley (about 30 kilometres away,) to see if we can find that tree, that’s where we are going,” I said.

We didn’t know exactly where Lyon’s sugar cane farm was, but the road into the Redlynch Valley was a long, but dead- end road so there was no danger of taking a wrong turn. So, we kept a good lookout on both sides of the road as we drove along. After about five Kilometres into the Redlynch Valley road, there was suddenly this towering tree on the left side in front of us, with the trunk laden with brown balls intermixed with beautiful Magnolia-size flowers. There was no doubt we had found the right tree. We stopped, went out of the car and looked with amazement at this fascinating tree in front of our eyes.

After we have had a long close look at the tree and its appendages from every angle, I walked the 20 meters to the farmhouse to ask what tree it was.
I reached the front door and with my curled index finger knocked on the door. I was ready to say, “excuse me, would you please tell me what tree that was,” but I didn’t get a chance to say that. Almost simultaneously as I knocked on the door, the door sprang open, halfway, a lady said, “it’s a Cannonball tree,” shut the door and left me standing there for a minute dumbfounded – I didn’t even have time to say thank you.

I could only assume, that this question had been asked hundreds of times, especially on a weekend, since this tree was not far from a popular swimming place, the Crystal Cascades. When I returned to the site a few weeks later to show the tree to a friend, a sign was placed nearby, saying: “This is a Cannonball Tree.”

Since that “fateful” day, when I first put eyes on this fascinating tree, I have taken countless tourists and friends to this tree – their first comments is always without exception, “absolutely amazing!” When I was active in the North Queensland Promotion in the 1970’s & 80’s, I made sure it was included in tourist literature. However, I noticed that in recent times the tree has gone missing in tourist literature, but I will continue to take every opportunity to tell people about the tree, or take them there. It gives me such a wonderful feeling to see the happy faces when they look at this tree with “open-mouthed” amazement.

PS. This story is also to be found on the internet, at “” and achieved, when first published in 2001 the number one spot on the search engine Yahoo from 65.000 hits for more than six months – a remarkable achievement I was told by my Web publisher. - Werner


Brian R said...

There is an excellent example of the Cannonball tree at the Lions Den Pub at Helenvale south of Cooktown.

Anonymous said...

There are actually 3 cannonball trees at the redlynch house you are talking about. 2012

Tarla said...

I'd like to have a crack at making dye from the pulp, any chance you could give me directions to Lyons Sugar cane farm. Would be an excellent experiment. cheers TF Elward

Noel s said...

We have one in Tin Can Bay. It’s about 8 years old so has’t flowered yet.