This small tree is one of the most common trees around Townsville and across large areas of northern Australia. It is the only member of its genus in Australia, although there are a few other Planchonia species through South-East Asia.
It grows to about 6 metres, has light brown, slightly corky bark and fairly large broad leaves that turn bright orange before falling.
The flowers have many stamens around 6cm long, which are fused together into a tube at their bases. The whole staminal bundle falls off as a unit. Flowers are white, grading into a beautiful shade of pink inside towards the base. The individual flowers are superbly ornamental, but the flowering tree is seldom spectacular, as only a few flowers are usually produced at a time.
Another reason why flowering trees are not readily appreciated is because the Cocky Apple flowers at night. The flowers can be seen opening up at dusk. They persist until the sun shines the following day, when the staminal bundles fall off. They seem to be pollinated mostly by bats.
The fruit is edible, with a yellow flesh and the taste of a quince when ripe. It was a widely utilised food for Aborigines.
The bark was extensively used as a fish poison. It was pounded and thrown into pools of water, killing fish which could then be eaten without ill-effect. The fish are killed by saponin in the bark. Saponin is also a cleansing chemical. It can be used as a soap substitute. Aborigines used a concoction made from the bark to clean wounds, such as burns and ulcers.
Many graziers don't think much of Cocky Apple because it tends to reach pest proportions as a result of grazing or as regrowth after clearing. The trees can regenerate so thickly that they significantly reduce the quality of pasture and ease of mustering in many areas. It has thus gained itself a reputation as a native woody weed.
Cocky Apples are related to Freshwater Mangroves (Barringtonia spp.). Together, they are in the family Lecythidaceae, which is closely related to the Myrtaceae (myrtle family). A fairly strong similarity can be seen in the structure of Cocky Apple flowers and fruits and those of the larger flowered species of Lilly Pilly (Syzygium), which is in the family Myrtaceae.
(Reprinted from "The Native Gardener", Newsletter of SGAP Townsville Branch, August 1994.)