The Tembusu Tree

Named as one of Singapore’s heritage trees by the National Parks Board, the Tembusu is known for its resilience, dynamism, purpose, and usefulness.

The Tembusu (Cyrtophyllum fragrans) is a large evergreen tree native to Singapore and characterised by signature large, stretching and low-lying branches with upswept ends. It is named as one of Singapore’s heritage trees by the National Parks Board (NParks) and its image is used as a motif on the back of the Singapore five-dollar note in the portrait series, having been chosen to exemplify Singapore’s aspiration of becoming a “garden city”.

The qualities associated with the Tembusu and the wood it produces are resilience (the wood from the Tembusu is hard and highly durable), dynamism (it is extremely versatile in its use and is often used for a variety of purposes including heavy construction, railroads, bridges, boats, wharves and carving), purpose and usefulness (the Tembusu has medicinal and healing properties as well; its bark, leaves and twigs can be made into a decoction to treat illnesses such as fever and dysentery).

As it can grow to a large size and cast excellent shade, the Tembusu has long been identified as a suitable species for planting in parks and open spaces to provide a cool shelter where communities of people congregate.

Not only was the Tembusu selected for planting in the early years of Singapore’s greening movement in the 1960s for its fragrant flowers, the tree has also been used as a metaphor for relations between the state and civil society in the 1990s: the leaders of Singapore have been likened to the Tembusu for its tall and strong qualities with a smaller canopy that allows other plants – a reference to civil society – to grow around it.

In 2002, the Tembusu emerged as the unofficial national tree of Singapore in an informal poll conducted by the Nature Society (Singapore).

It was also said to be the favourite tree of Singapore’s founding father and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and, in 2015, a Tembusu was planted in his memory at Duxton Plain Park in his former Tanjong Pagar constituency to provide shade and beauty for residents and their children for years to come.

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