Symplocos (PROSEA Dyes and tannins)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Symplocos Jacq.

Protologue: Enum. Fl. Carib. 5: 24 (1760).
Family: Symplocaceae
Chromosome number: x= 11;
  • 2n= 22: S. fasciculata, S. lucida;
  • 2n= 22 + 1 or 2 B: S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina;
  • 2n= unknown: S. adenophylla var. adenophylla, S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var.cochinchinensis, S. odoratissima var. odoratissima

Major species and synonyms

Symplocos adenophylla Wallich ex G. Don, Gen. Syst. 4: 3 (1837) var. adenophylla, synonyms:

  • S. fulvosa King & Gamble (1906),
  • S. palawanensis Brand (1908),
  • S. pruniflora Ridley (1909);

Symplocos cochinchinensis (Lour.) S. Moore, J. Bot. 52: 148 (1914) ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis, synonyms:

  • S. ferruginea Roxb. (1832),
  • S. javanica Kurz (1871);

Symplocos cochinchinensis (Lour.) S. Moore ssp. laurina (Retz.) Nooteb. var. laurina , Leiden Bot. Series 1: 156 (1975), synonyms:

  • S. spicata Roxb. (1832),
  • S. laurina Wallich ex G. Don (1837);

Symplocos fasciculata Zoll., Syst. Verz. 2: 136 (1854);

Symplocos lucida (Thunb.) Zuccarini, Fl. Jap. 1: 55, t. 24 (1835), synonyms:

  • S. theaefolia Buch.-Ham. ex D. Don (1825),
  • S. japonica DC. (1844);

Symplocos odoratissima (Blume) Choisy ex Zoll., Syst. Verz. 2: 136 (1854) var. odoratissima , synonyms:

  • S. villarii Vidal (1886),
  • S. floridissima Brand (1901),
  • S. pulgarensis Elmer (1913).

Vernacular names

S. adenophylla var. adenophylla :

  • Indonesia: kayu lattan, kayu porugis (Sumatra), kayu kain (western Kalimantan)
  • Malaysia: mendong, menugan.

S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis :

  • Indonesia: jirak sapi (Sundanese, Javanese)
  • Malaysia: medang hitam
  • Philippines: tabu (Ifiago).

S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina :

  • Indonesia: jirak, jirak sasah (Sundanese), jirek (Javanese)
  • Malaysia: pokok api-api.

S. fasciculata :

  • Indonesia: kaju loba-loba (Sumatra), jirek (Javanese), jirak (Sundanese)
  • Malaysia: merpadi paya, nasi-nasi, pokok lukut.

S. lucida :

  • Indonesia: kayu hotir (Sumatra), jirak lulub (Sundanese), jirek (Javanese).

S. odoratissima var. odoratissima :

  • Indonesia: ki sariawan (Sundanese).

Origin and geographic distribution

The large genus of about 250 species is distributed in the eastern parts of the Old World, in Australia reaching as far as New South Wales and Lord Howe Island, and in the Pacific as far as Fiji. In the New World species are found from the United States (Washington) to southern Brazil.

S. adenophylla var. adenophylla is distributed in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia (except in Java, the Lesser Sunda Islands and Irian Jaya). S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis occurs in continental South-East Asia and Malesia except the Lesser Sunda Islands, Sulawesi and the Moluccas, whereas ssp. laurina var. laurina is distributed over a large area from India and Sri Lanka to China and Japan in the north, and to Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Sulawesi in the south. S. fasciculata is found in the most southern part of Thailand, in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia (except east from Sulawesi and Java). S. lucida occurs in northern India, northern Burma, northern Thailand to China and Japan, and in Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and in the western part of Indonesia. S. odoratissima var. odoratissima occurs in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia (except Irian Jaya).

Symplocos is rarely in cultivation. S. odoratissima was cultivated in Java.


The inner bark of S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis and S. fasciculata was often used as a mordant in the batik industry and, mixed with other plants, as a dye. It gives a yellow colour by itself but is more frequently used in the preparation of reds derived from Morinda spp., Caesalpinia sappan L., Butea spp., and other dye plants. Also the leaves are used as a yellow dye or mordant, as in S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina and S. lucida. From the vernacular name of S. adenophylla var. adenophylla in western Borneo the use as a mordant or dye can be inferred. Most species do not reach a volume adequate for timber, but in Vietnam the wood of S. adenophylla var. adenophylla is reportedly very hard and good for columns; usually the wood is reported as soft and light and used for light construction. The wood of S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis and S. lucida is used for houseposts, furniture and frames of houses; the wood of S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina is used for matches, and S. fasciculata wood is used for carving.

The young red leaves of several species, e.g. S. odoratissima var. odoratissima, are eaten as a vegetable. The bark and leaves are used as a medicine. The powdered bark of S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina is given with honey to cure biliousness, haemorrhages, diarrhoea, gonorrhoea, and diseases of the eyes; a paste of the leaves, boiled in oil, is applied to diseases of the scalp. In western Java the inner bark of S. odoratissima var. odoratissima, known as "kulit seriawan", is exhibited in every drugstore. It is pulped and rubbed on the gums to cure thrush. An infusion of the leaves of this variety is used for the same purpose. Pulped leaves are also applied to the lips and to the abdomen after childbirth, and taken internally in a decoction. Rosaries are made from the dried fruits of S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis.


All or nearly all the species contain large amounts of aluminium, up to 50% of the ash, and this is the origin of the action as a mordant. Gallic and ellagic acid are common. Leucoanthocyanins occur in varying amounts, quercetin and caffeic acid have also been demonstrated. A mixture of triterpenoid saponins has been obtained from the bark of S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina , and 21-0 ß-glucodise of phloretin has been isolated from the leaves of this variety. It has been demonstrated that the arabino-galactan from the leaves of S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina contains L-arabinose and D-galactose in the ratio 5:3. Ethanolic extract of leaves of S. lucida produced hypoglycemic activity in rats, and anti-cancer activity against Friend virus leukemia in mice, and extracts of the leaves and stem show activity against human epidermoid carcinoma of the nasopharynx in tissue culture.

The wood of Symplocos is usually soft and light. It has a volumetric mass of 780 kg/m3 air dry in S. adenophylla var. adenophylla ; the grain is straight or interlocked, the texture fine and even; sapwood and heartwood are not differentiated, light pink-brown. The timber of S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis is of slight value with a clear red colour and a grain suggesting oak. The wood of S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina is white, soft, and evenly grained, 593 kg/m3, the wood of S. fasciculata is also rather soft and white, as that of S. lucida , which has a volumetric mass of 580 kg/m3.


  • Shrubs to (rarely) large trees.
  • Leaves simple, often with leathery bud scales, glabrous or with simple hairs, alternate or spirally arranged, rarely pseudo-verticillate, exstipulate, penninerved, petioled (rarely almost sessile).
  • Inflorescence a spike, raceme, or panicle, sometimes condensed to clusters, usually in the upper leaf axils.
  • Flowers subtended by a bract and two bracteoles, actinomorphic, bisexual (rarely by reduction unisexual), often fragrant; calyx with short tube, the limb 3-5-lobed; corolla sympetalous, often divided nearly to the base, whitish, bluish or purplish; stamens many, connate in a long monadelphous tube or only at the very base and then monadelphous or pentadelphous; anthers globose, 2-celled, lengthwise dehiscent, introrse; ovary inferior, 2-5-celled, style 1, stigma punctiform or peltate; ovules 2-4 in each cell.
  • Fruit a drupe, crowned by the persistent calyx lobes, of various shapes.
  • Seeds straight or curved, 1 in each developed cell, with copious endosperm.

S. adenophylla var. adenophylla :

  • Shrub or tree up to 20 m tall and 50 cm diameter; young twigs pulverulent puberulous, glabrescent
  • Leaves pulverulent beneath.

S. cochinchinensis ssp. cochinchinensis var. cochinchinensis :

  • Shrub or small tree, 9-22 m tall and up to 30 cm diameter, rarely to 45 m tall and up to 80 cm diameter; twigs rusty tomentose or velvety, glabrescent.
  • Leaves with glandular dentate margin and acuminate apex, 12-25 cm × 3-10 cm with 10-16 pairs of conspicuous strictly parallel nerves and with 5-17 mm long petiole.
  • Inflorescence a spike, bract and bracteoles forming a calycle hiding the ovary; calyx lobes hairy.

S. cochinchinensis ssp. laurina var. laurina :

  • Shrub or small tree, 6-14 m tall and up to 30 cm diameter.

It differs from the preceding taxon in the glabrous leaves and twigs, leaves having 6-9 pairs of not strictly parallel nerves, bracts and bracteoles enveloping only the base of the ovary, and the glabrous calyx.

S. fasciculata :

  • Shrub or less often a tree to 22 m tall and 50 cm diameter; twigs sparsely pilose, puberulous, or appressedly pubescent.
  • Leaves alternately or on the leaders spirally arranged, 5-13 cm × 2-4.5 cm, with 6-8 pairs of nerves and 2-8 mm long petiole.
  • Inflorescence a fascicule of reduced, often branched racemes, up to 2.5 cm long.

S. lucida :

  • Shrub or small tree up to 20 m tall and 25 cm diameter, generally entirely glabrous except the inflorescence; terminal buds with large glabrous scales.
  • Leaves coriaceous with prominent midrib above, 5-12 cm × 2-4.5 cm, and with 5-15 pairs of nerves, and 5-15 mm long petiole.

S. odoratissima var. odoratissima :

  • Tree (or shrub) up to 30 m tall and 50 cm diameter; twigs glabrous or tomentellous to tomentose or pubescent.
  • Leaves glabrous or pubescent beneath, 7-20 cm × 5-10 cm, with a stout 10-50 mm long petiole.
  • Inflorescence a mostly many-flowered, rusty tomentellous panicle, 5-30 cm long.

Growth and development

The flowers on one tree are almost all open at the same time. Dwarfed specimens hardly 1 m tall may flower, for instance on young volcanic soils. Pollination is probably carried out by insects such as bees and bumble-bees, but self-pollination has also been suggested. Although birds and bats may sometimes eat the fruits, abundant dispersal of the fruits by these animals is not very likely. For some species dispersal by water has been noticed.

Other botanical information

All species used in the dyeing processes belong to subgenus Hopea (L.) Clarke, in which many species contain aluminium compounds. In herbarium material leaves usually have a yellow colour as a result of the aluminium compound reacting with flavonols in the drying leaves. Symplocos racemosa Roxb. is used as a mordant in Indo-China; in India a yellow dye is prepared from the leaves and bark of this species.


Symplocos species grow under tropical to temperate conditions in mixed evergreen rain forest, never under arid conditions. Most species, e.g. S. adenophylla, S. cochinchinensis (both taxa cited), S. fasciculata and S. odoratissima have a fair altitudinal range from sea-level up to 3000 m, in New Guinea even up to 4000 m. S. lucida grows in high and low mountain forest, 1500-3000 m. The species are usually rather indifferent to soils, and some of them even grow on young volcanic soils, often as dwarf shrubs.


Like other dye plants, Symplocos is now rarely used in dyeing processes. It has almost completely been replaced by synthetic dyes and salts of metals as a mordant. Problems of environmental pollution by these latter substances might give new chances to the vegetable mordants.


  • Chadha, Y.R. (Editor), 1976. The wealth of India. Raw materials. Vol. 10. Publications & Information Directorate, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi. pp. 89-91.
  • Desch, H.E., 1954. Manual Malayan Timbers 2. Malayan Forest Records No 15. Kuala Lumpur. pp. 591-593.
  • Nooteboom, H.P., 1975. Revision of the Symplocaceae of the Old World, New Caledonia excepted. Leiden Botanical Series 1. 335 pp.
  • Nooteboom, H.P., 1977. Symplocaceae. In: van Steenis, C.G.G.J. (Editor): Flora Malesiana, Series 1. Vol. 8(2). pp. 205-274.
  • Ochse, J.J. & Bakhuizen van den Brink, R.C., 1931. Reprint 1980. Vegetables of the Dutch East Indies. A. Asher & Co., Amsterdam. pp. 696-697, fig. 422.
  • Tiwari, R.D. & Tripathi, H.L., 1976. The structure of an arabinogalactan from the leaves of Symplocos spicata. Planta Medica 29: 376-379.


H.P. Nooteboom