19 May 2009

Fluffy plant of the mangrove bund: Beluntas (Pluchea indica)

I saw this small shrub for the first time during our recent trip to Pulau Ubin. It has tiny delicate flowers in a ball and fluffy winged seeds that were floating all around us in drifting clouds.
Beluntas (Pluchea indica) is a shrubby herb that grows to 1.5m tall. The leaves are thick, toothed and 2-6cm long, arranged spirally alternate. The leaves have a few small inconspicuous gland and are 'very aromatic' especially when crushed. In fact, one of its common names is Indian camphorweed, perhaps due to its smell.

I didn't touch the plant so I didn't experience this. In fact, I am more wary of terrestrial plants than marine creatures. Some plants have nasty hairy bits that sting, or juices that can burn skin. And many have ants or other bugs that bite and sting.

The tiny flowers are tubular, purplish or white and appear in a ball (2.5-12.5cm wide) which are held at the tips of the branches.
The tiny fruits have a ring of hairs at the top. These silky parachutes catch the slightest breeze and allow them to be dispersed by wind.
The plant appears to have a wide range of traditional uses from treating fevers and tummy problems, to applications for sores and ulcers. Both in our part of the world (Malaya and Indonesia) as well as in India. Other common names for it include Indian fleabane, although I've not come across an account of the plant being used to keep off fleas.

According to Hsuan Keng, the plant was commonly seen on tidal swamps and along the coast including Changi, Geylang, Jurong. It is rarely encountered inland. According to Burkill, it is cultivated inland in Java, but not in Malaya. According to Giesen, it grows on clayey, saline soils in sunny or slightly shaded areas. Never in the centre of mangroves but often on bunds and low ridges crossing mangroves and near fish ponds or on the landward margins of mangroves.

The plant is considered an invasive weed outside its natural range where it grows rapidly, quickly forming dense stands, particularly in wetlands. Thus it affects the habitat for native birds and other animals.

References
  • Hsuan Keng, S.C. Chin and H. T. W. Tan. 1990, The Concise Flora of Singapore: Gymnosperms and Dicotyledons. Singapore University Press. 222 pp.
  • Burkill, I. H., 1993. A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula. 3rd printing. Publication Unit, Ministry of Agriculture, Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Volume 1: 1-1240; volume 2: 1241-2444.
  • Giesen, Wim and Stephan Wulffraat, Max Zieren and Liesbeth Scholten. 2006. Mangrove Guidebook for Southeast Asia (PDF online downloadable). RAP publication 2006/07 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific Bangkok.
  • Pluchea indica on the Global Invasive Species Database

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