My last Sunday stroll in Brunei for a while, before we pack our bags for a little holiday trip home to the UK. I decided it was high time I learnt a little bit more about this strange looking fruit, which I have seen thriving in all sorts of growing conditions and locations here in Brunei.
There are some trees, plants and fruit which have the same name the world over. You know where you are with ‘Holly’, for example. And then there are others which have a huge variety of interesting names, many of which are indicative of their uses or local customs. Take the Frangipani, which is variously known as the Temple Tree, Snake Tree or Graveyard Tree.
Like the Frangipani, the Noni tree – found in tropical locations around the world – has some pretty unusual names. The tree is a South East Asian native, known here as the Noni tree. But depending on where else you see it, it might be called (amongst many other names) the Indian mulberry, Great Morinda, Wild Pine, Canary Wood, Hog Apple, Beach mulberry, or Cheese fruit tree. Or even the Vomit Tree. Yes, really.
Those last two I find particularly descriptive names and they are applied with good reason. The ripening fruits develop a really pungent smell. By the time they are fully ripened, white and almost oozing, they really do have quite a stomach churning stench to them!
A great quote from the English actor, author and all-round national treasure, Stephen Fry, goes ‘taste every fruit of every tree in the garden at least once. It is an insult to creation not to experience it fully. Temperance is wickedness’.
I haven’t been able to find the context for the quote. Though as a leading advocate for gay rights and equality, I would guess that this was probably a clever play on words, given the biblical references about knowing a tree by its fruit. There is a New Testament reference In Matthew 12:33 which goes something like ‘either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit‘ depending on which version of the Bible you refer to. But even taking it in a purely gastronomic and horticultural sense, on this occasion I think I’ll decline Mr Fry’s advice and give the Noni fruit a wide berth.
I’m not inclined to go making home remedies. I don’t know nearly enough, and it just seems too risky. But the Noni tree and its fruit do lay claim to an impressively long list of potential health benefits. It has analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties for a start. Traditional uses for it include easing menstrual cramps, and alleviating urinary tract infections and bowel problems. But this is a plant which should be used with care and consumed extremely judiciously. Taken in excess, it can cause abdominal pain, nausea, headaches, skin rashes, constipation or diarrhoea. And that’s just for people without any complicating or underlying more serious health problems!
Interestingly, recent clinical studies seem to indicate that the ‘vomit tree’ may be so named because of the fruit’s possible antiemetic properties, rather than because the overpowering smell is vomit-inducing to sensitive Western noses! One of those beautiful moments when traditional herbal lore and knowledge meets modern medicine and clinical practice. I wonder how many other weird and wonderful tropical plants and fruits are well known in traditional medicine for their healing powers but have yet to be discovered by modern medicine?