Leguminosae -- Legume family
Roger G. Skolmen
Monkey-pod (Pithecellobium saman), samán in Spanish, is a fast-growing tree that has been introduced to many tropical countries throughout the world from its native habitats in Central America and northern South America. Although generally planted as a shade tree and ornamental, it has been naturalized in many countries and is greatly valued in pastures as shade for cattle. Short-boled, with a spreading crown when open grown, it forms a long, relatively straight stem when closely spaced. Its wood is highly valued in some locations for carvings and furniture (7).
The most widely used common name for the species is raintree, from the belief that the tree produces rain at night. The leaflets close up at night or when under heavy cloud cover, allowing rain to pass easily through the crown. This trait may contribute to the frequently observed fact that grass remains green under the trees in times of drought. However, the shading effect of the crown, the addition of nitrogen to the soil by decomposition of litter from this leguminous tree, and possibly, the sticky droppings of cicada insects in the trees all contribute to this phenomenon (3). The Hawaiian common name, monkey-pod, is used here because it is a logical derivation of the scientific name Pithecellobium (monkey earring in Greek). Besides monkey-pod, raintree, and saman, which is its name throughout Latin America, the tree is called mimosa in the Philippines.
The pods contain a sweet edible pulp that supplies nutritious food for animals. Children also chew on the pods, which have a licoricelike flavor (3). Monkey-pod has long been a favorite of plant physiologists for studies of nyctinastic leaf movements (9).
Although the tree is commonly used as a shade tree in parking lots, it is undesirable for this purpose because of the sticky flowers, gum, and seed pods that fall from it during much of the year.
Monkey-pod wood has been reported as hard and heavy (12), and difficult to work (3,4). Actually, in Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific where it has been used much more extensively than in its native habitat, the wood is considered easy to work, particularly because low shrinkage during drying allows it to be machined while green. Articles made from green wood can be dried without serious drying degrade (10). In Hawaii, monkey-pod has been the premier craftwood used for carved and turned souvenir bowls since 1946. As labor costs increased, however, the industry spread to the Philippines and Thailand, which now supply most of the monkey-pod bowls for which Hawaii is famous.