Sterculia foetida L. (Malvaceae)
by Mrs. Norzielawati Bt. Salleh
© Norzielawati Salleh

Sterculia foetida L. is distinguished from other Sterculia species recorded in Malaysia by having palmate leaves (Wilkie & Berhaman, 2011). It is popularly known as 'kelumpang jari' in Malay because the leaves look like 'jari' or fingers containing 5-6(-9) leaflets (Francis, 2010). Besides, this species also called kelumpang, kelapung, kayu lepung, kepoh, kepah, giant Sterculia, Java olive, and Poon tree (Abd. Latif et al., 2014; NParks' Publication, 2009). The genus Sterculia, named after the Roman God, Sterculius, the God of privies, and stercus in Latin means faeces (Wilkie & Berhaman, 2011), referring to the foul-smelling flowers of some species in this genus. The species epithet 'foetida' comes from the Latin word, foetidus, which means evil-smelling from the flower's aroma (Wilkie & Berhaman, 2011). The genus Sterculia was originally categorised under the family Sterculiaceae. However, a recent molecular study reclassified the genus under the family Malvaceae (Wilkie et al., 2006).

This deciduous tree can grow up to 30 m tall, and the crown is roughly conical and quite dense (Nparks' Publication, 2009). The bark is grey to brown, fissured to dippled, and lenticellate. The leaves are palmately compound with 5–9 leaflets, clustered towards the ends of twigs, and have leathery blades with long leaf stalks. The flowers are greenish-yellow becoming red at the margin, red in the middle, hairy, 5-lobed and emit an unpleasant odour. The fruits are attractive with 1-5 big red pod-like woody capsules clustered together. Each fruit splits open to reveal approximately 20 purple-black ellipsoid seeds of c. 2.5 cm long and 1.3 cm in diameter (Wilkie & Berhaman, 2011). According to the Malaysia Plant Red List 2010 (Chua et al., 2010), the species has not been evaluated for its conservation status.

Sterculia foetida is mainly found in the coastal area from East Africa to Northern Australia, including Southeast Asia, Malaya, and Pacific Islands (NParks' Publication, 2009). The tree can withstand drought and different soil types. Because of that, it is becoming popular in the urban landscape as a shade plant. Also, the shape of the foliage and fruits of this plant are unique making it attractive to the community. This tree is propagated by seeds. The trunk of this tree is used as lumber in the making of tea chests and packing crates. The leafy branches can be used as livestock feed (Nparks' Publication, 2009). The seeds can be eaten like nuts by roasting or cooking them first and are a source of cooking oil. The bark, leaves and roots are used in traditional medicine, such as for treating fever, broken bones and dislocated joints, and jaundice in babies (Abd. Latif et al., 2014).

Flowers of Sterculia foetida (Malvaceae)

(Copyright © Norzielawati Salleh)


  1. Abd. Latif, M., Nik Zanariah, N.M., Zawiah, N. & Othaman, H. (2014). Kenali 114 Spesies Buah-Buahan Liar. Institut Penyelidikan Perhutanan Malaysia & Kementerian Sumber Asli & Alam Sekitar, Malaysia. pp. 228-229.
  2. Chua, L.S.L., Suhaida, M., Hamidah, M. & Saw, L.G. (2010). Malaysia Plant Red List Peninsular Malaysian Dipterocarpaceae. Research Pamphlet No. 129. Forest Research Institute Malaysia & Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Malaysia. pp. 210.
  3. Ng, F.S.P (2010). Tropical Horticulture & Gardening. MPH Publishing. pp. 294.
  4. Tee, S.P. & Wee, M.L. (2009). Trees of Our Garden City: A Guide to the Common Trees of Singapore. NParks' Publication, Singapore. pp. 111.
  5. Wilkie, P. & Berhaman, A. (2011). Sterculiaceae. In Soepadmo, E., Saw, L.G., Chung, R.C.K. & Kiew, R. (eds.) Tree Flora of Sabah and Sarawak, Volume 7. Sabah Forestry Department, Forest Research Institute Malaysia, Sarawak Forestry Department. pp. 337-339.
  6. Wilkie, P., Clark, A., Pennington, R.T., Cheek, M., Bayer, C. & Wilcock, C.C. (2006). Phylogenetic Relationships within The Subfamily Sterculioideae (Malvaceae/ Sterculiaceae – Sterculieae) Using The Chloroplast Gene ndhF. Systematic Botany. 31 (1), 160-170.
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