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Bitterness comes before sweetness - Myrobalan

Originally published in Green Country, Issue 121 (Aug 2016)
Author: Green Power

At this time of the year, you will see many yellowish green fruits on the trees as you hike in the countryside. They are Myrobalans. These little fruits taste bitter at your first bite, but sweetness follows. In the past, the fruits were often eaten fresh or cured to make snacks. They can also be dried to make tea. There are so many ways to enjoy these fruits!

Myrobalan (Phyllanthus emblica) is a shrub or small tree of the Euphorbiaceae family, flowering from April to July and fruiting from July to September. It is now the fruiting period. The spherical fruits are green initially, and turn golden yellow when ripe. The juicy and fleshy fruits are delicacies for many wild animals, such as Masked Palm Civet (Paguma larvata). Although tasting bitter at the first bite, as you chew the fruit its sweetness comes to the fore and seems to quench your thirst. In the past, snacks made of Myrobalan were common. It is rather difficult to get one in the market today! Yet do not collect Myrobalan in the wild, as this may be an offence under the Country Parks Ordinance, and by doing so you are taking food away from wild animals!

Apart from its fruits, Myrobalan leaves are also useful. When dried, they can be used to fill pillows, giving a cooling effect. The tiny, oval leaves grow in an orderly arrangement, and resemble a compound leaf. Upon a closer look, under the leaves there are small brown stipules, which protect the young leaves and define each leaf as "individual".

Malacca = Myrobalan

The flowers of Myrobalan are small and pale yellow. In early summer, the blossoms cover whole branches and attract butterflies for the nectar. Amidst the dense yellow flowers there are occasionally some light green, weird looking flowers. These are the female flowers, with an open style like a claw stretching out. Only the female flowers bear fruits. The pale yellow ones are male flowers with yellow stamens, which do not bear fruits.

Myrobalan is associated with many places. A village in Tsuen Wan – Yau Kom Tau Tsuen, was named after the tree as it was formerly a productive place for Myrobalan. In Malaysia, the city Malacca was also named after Myrobalan. Legend has it that the founder of the city encountered a mouse deer fighting back a hunting dog under a Myrobalan tree, and was so impressed he named the place he founded Malacca, which is Myrobalan in the Malayian language. Today, the coat of arms of the Malacca is still a mouse deer and a Myrobalan tree!

The leaves are in orderly arrangements, resembling compound leaves.
© Joyce Siu
Beautiful dense blossoms on an entire branch.
© Joyce Siu
The male flowers (above) and female flowers (below) of Myrobalan.
© Joyce Siu
There is a small brown stipule at the base of each leaf.
© Joyce Siu

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