Plant 234

Crinodendron species (Elaeocarpaceae)


Lantern trees

Floral details of Crinodendron patagua from 'Hooker's Botanical Miscellany' (1833; v.3, t.100)

The genus Crinodendron comprises four South American species. The generic name Crinodendron, derived from Greek, literally means 'lily-tree', and is a reference to the white-flowered, Chilean tree Crinodendron patagua, which was first described in 1782. Crinodendron hookerianum was first described in 1846. The specific name hookerianum honours the British botanist William Jackson Hooker, who sent plant collectors across the planet and amassed one of the largest personal herbaria in the world; these specimens were the foundation of today's herbarium at Kew.

Crinodendron hookerianum was introduced to Britain by William Lobb for Messrs Veitch in 1848, and for the same firm by Richard Pearce ten years later. The tree is native to Chile, in the provinces of Valdivia and Llanquihue and the Island of Chiloe, where it is often found in temperate rainforests. The species has several local names, derived from the native language of the Mapuche people and colonial Spanish, through its native range; the most common is Chaquihue.

Crinodendron hookerianum forms a tree up to ten metres tall but is more often a large shrub. Its leaves are usually opposite, toothed and evergreen. The flowers are solitary, bisexual and urn- or bell-shaped. The fruits are often hairy, opening to reveal black seeds that are usually covered in a translucent to grey fleshy aril. The plant is mildly poisonous; its toxicity is because of the presence of cucurbitacins, a class of cytotoxic triterpenoids, whose name is based on their frequent occurrence in genera of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). The leaves and bark of Crinodendron hookerianum are used in traditional Chilean medicine because of their emetic properties.

In the genus Crinodendron there is a clear distinction between pollination syndromes. Crinodendron hookerianum is hummingbird pollinated, and has red, scentless, narrow-mouthed flowers with fleshy petals. In contrast, Crinodendron patagua is insect pollinated and has white, relatively wide-mouthed, scented flowers with thin petals.

One characteristic of Crinodendron hookerianum that helps with its identification is its curious habit of pushing out its flower-stalks in the autumn. These persist through the winter and the flowers open in the following May. Thriving in colder areas of the United Kingdom, it prefers a sheltered woodland garden or to be against a south- or west-facing wall, tolerating a more exposed site in milder areas. It should be grown in moist, well-drained, humus-rich, acid soil in partial shade. The leaves have a tendency to scorch when exposed to direct sunlight.

Further reading

Hogan S 2008. Trees for all seasons: broadleaved evergreens for temperate climates. Timber Press.

Bittner M et al. 1973 Cucurbitacins and aromatic compounds from Crinodendron hookerianum. Phytochemistry 12: 1427-1431.

Ben Jones