Tembusu Spotlight

Do you have a five-dollar bill? If you do, take a close look at the design of the bill. You will notice a large tree in the background of the bill. Have you ever wondered what that tree is?

As you might have guessed from the title of the article, it is the tembusu tree!

The tembusu tree (Cyrtophyllum fragrans) is an evergreen tree from the Gentianaceae family that can be found in Singapore. In fact, the tembusu tree featured in the five-dollar bill is found in the Botanic Gardens and is reportedly over 150 years-old. 

According to NParks, there are a total of 255 Heritage Trees in the Heritage Tree Register; 10 are tembusu trees. Inaugurated in August 2001, the Heritage Tree Scheme is meant to support the conservation of mature trees in Singapore. These trees are a reminder of our natural heritage and have significant historical, aesthetic, and socio-cultural values in them. Eng Siak Loy, the artist who won the Monetary Association of Singapore’s design competition for the five-dollar bill, chose the native tembusu tree to express the theme of “Garden City” through something distinctive and easily recognisable to everyone.   

Image of a Tembusu Tree at Bedok Reservoir, by Mookie from Wikimedia Commons.

The tree’s most distinctive feature is its deeply fissured bark. When I was first introduced to it, the guides told me that the tree looks “out of place” in Singapore because of its thick bark⁠—something common in temperate climates because of the need for the insulation. Conversely, this is odd for a tree native to Southeast Asia, where temperatures are high almost all year round. 

When you come across older trees, you might notice a distinctive branching pattern in the tembusu tree. With sufficient space, the branches of the tree will grow horizontally before abruptly growing vertically, creating a sharp perpendicular branching pattern which is the tree’s signature feature.

Fragans in Cyrtophyllum frangans means fragrance in Latin, and the tembusu tree’s name arose from the sweet smell of its flowers. Its flowers start out white and mature into a yellow hue. They exude a strong, sweet scent in the morning and evenings. Its fruits ripen into round berries that provide food for many different animals.

Image of Tembusu flowers, by Ria Tan from flickr.
Image of Tembusu fruits, by Cerlin Ng from flickr.

According to NParks, the hard and durable wood of the tembusu tree was commonly used to build houses, bridges, and rafters. That said, let us spare the 150-year-old tembusu tree in Botanic Gardens from such a fate. While it is easy to get a five-dollar bill from the nearest ATM, the tree which it depicts is much harder to come by. Money does not grow on trees; five-dollar bills never will replace them. 

Header and feature image taken from NParks website.

This post was initially written for BES Drongos, a nature appreciation group formed by Bachelor of Environmental Studies (BES) undergraduates that conducts regular nature trails at MacRitchie Reservoir. It has been modified for Treehouse.

About the author

Willis Lau is a Year 2 Environmental Studies Major (BES) that is interested in examining the way we interact with nature and the environment. An advocate of conservation, he is a part of Tembusu Wildlife Association (tWild) and BES Drongos and hopes to use writing to influence the way we look at the environment and issues around us.