There are some trees out there that you probably shouldn't hug. Couroupita guianensis is one such example. You certainly wouldn't want to risk standing at the base of one for any length of time. What looks like a vine covering the trunk of each tree is actually the reproductive structures of this species. Beautiful flowers give way to hefty seed pods, earning this tree its common name, the canon ball tree.
A native to Central and South America as well as parts of the Caribbean, the distinctive flowers of this tree are born on long stalks that emerge right out of the trunk. This is known as "cauliflory." Trees like this can cause you to do a double take. Indeed, it is strange seeing flowers on a trunk instead of at the tips of branches. It is likely that this type of flowering has evolved as a form of resource partitioning. Instead of vying for pollinators or seed dispersers way up in the canopy, trees like Couroupita guianensis may opt for them at lower levels in the forest where competition may be lower.
In the case of Couroupita guianensis, the main pollinators are carpenter bees. The peculiar flowers don't produce any nectar, however, they make up for this by offering copious amounts of pollen. The strangest aspect of this is that two different type of pollen are produced. Each flower has two sets of anthers, one set forms a ring around the center of the flower and the other set is located at the tip of the petal that is bent inward forming a hood. What's more, the pollen grains produced by each set is different in appearance with the ring pollen being white and smaller and the hood pollen being yellow and larger. As it turns out, the hood pollen is mostly sterile whereas the ring pollen is fertile. When a bee lands on the hood of the flower looking for pollen, it is attracted to the larger grains. As it harvests pollen from the hood its body is pushed up against the ring pollen, which is carried to the next flower, where the process is repeated and the flower fertilized.
After fertilization, large capsules are produced that sort of resemble coconuts or canon balls. Being a member of the Brazil nut family, these capsules can measure upwards of 8 inches in diameter and are chock full of pulp and seeds. Each capsule eventually falls from the tree, cracking open as it smashes into the ground. The capsules can be so large and heavy that anyone unfortunate enough to be standing under one when it fell is likely to be killed by the impact. The pulp inside is said to smell quite awful, which is a attractive to various seed dispersers around the forest. Peccaries as well as large rodents like the paca eat the seeds, which germinate quite well after passing through their gut.
Couroupita guianensis has been planted far outside of its natural range for a variety of reasons. It is likely that anyone visiting a botanical garden in the tropics will come across one of these odd trees. Any gardener worth their weight would do well to keep this tree away from footpaths. This is a species best admired from a distance. Aside from avoiding a head crushing blow from one of those seed capsules, this is a tree that must be seen in its entirety to truly appreciate.
Photo Credits: Joel Abroad (http://bit.ly/1sV4vgO), Mauricio Mercadante (http://bit.ly/1J0dEsn), and Drriss & Marrionn (http://bit.ly/17ZiSaT)