Plant 382

Lecythis pisonis Cambess. (Lecythidaceae)

Monkey pot

Lecythis is a small genus of large, deciduous South American trees belonging to the Brazil nut family. The name is attributed to Swedish botanist Pehr Loefling, a favourite student of Carolus Linnaeus. Loefling took part in one of the first botanical expeditions to northern South America. Although he died of malaria, aged 27, during this journey, he sent home letters with plant descriptions and approximately 600 botanical specimens, many of which were new to science. In 1758, Linnaeus published the name in a posthumous publication attributed to Loefling.

Lecythis pisonis is a tree that is native to South America, occurring from Panama and the Caribbean to southeastern Brazil. Its Portuguese common name is sapucaia. The violet flowers, produced along with a deep pink flush of young leaves, creates a stunning display. This was the tree chosen by French gardener Auguste Glaziou to grace the main avenue leading to the Imperial Palace in Rio de Janeiro in 1868. Emperor Dom Pedro II, who had visited Versailles, had been impressed by the imposing main avenue. He therefore asked Glaziou to create a similar effect in the Imperial Palace gardens. These gardens are now open to the public and when the trees flower, the people of Rio congregate to admire the Alameda das sapucaias.

The monkey pot is bee-pollinated and mammal-dispersed in nature. It produces large, round woody fruits filled with edible nuts, that are like Brazil nuts. The fruit have a smallish lid that drops off when the fruit is mature. The fruit hangs from the tree and the nuts drop out of the hole left by the lid as the wind shakes the tree. Monkey pot nuts are rich in unsaturated fats, proteins and dietary fibre, as well as being a good source of selenium and antioxidants.

Monkeys (as well as humans) are very fond of the nuts, leading to another Portuguese common name, cumbuca-de-macaco (monkey bowls). People have noticed that older, experienced monkeys shake the fruits to get the nuts out, while young monkeys stick their hands into them. Once their fists are full of nuts, they can no longer get them through the narrow hole – an amusing spectacle. This has led to a popular Brazilian saying: Macaco velho não mete a mão em cumbuca (old monkeys do not stick their hands into monkey bowls) celebrating the cunning and patience of experience, in contrast to the innocent impetuousness of youth.

Further reading

Demoliner F et al. 2018. Sapucaia nut (Lecythis pisonis Cambess.) and its by-products: a promising and underutilized source of bioactive compounds. Part I: Nutritional composition and lipid profile. Food Research International 108: 27-34.

Mori SA and Prance GT 1990. Flora Neotropica. Vol. 21. Lecythidaceae-Part II (Couroupita, Corythophora, Bertholletia, Couratari, Eschweilera & Lecythis), with a study of secondary xylem of neotropical Lecythidaceae. New York Botanical Garden.

Trindade JA 2014. Os jardins de Glaziou para a Quinta da Boa Vista. Revista Espaço Acadêmico 156: 60-73.

Carolyn Proença