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Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), a tropical fruit native to the Malayan archipelago belongs to the family Sapindaceae. The word rambutan is derived from the Malay word rambut meaning "hair", a reference to the numerous hairy protuberances of the fruit. The hairy fruit, often red but sometimes yellow, when peeled open, reveals a sweet, white flesh, clinging to a woody seed. Singapore is the largest importer of rambutans worldwide.
Origin and distribution
It is a popular belief that rambutans are native to Malaysia and Indonesia. The earliest record of rambutan trees show that they were cultivated by the Malayan jungle tribes around their temporary settlements, a practice followed to date. Rambutan trees are today found growing naturally in Southern China, the Indochina region and Southeast Asia. With increasing popularity amongst non-Asians and growing demand for rambutans worldwide, the fruit is presently considered an important agricultural produce. It is grown commercially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Sri Lanka, Australia, Hawaii, Vietnam and Central America. Even in 1981, rambutans were grown commercially on up to 700 ha of land in Singapore. Rapid urbanisation meant rambutan plantations are no longer found in Singapore. To meet the demands of its people, Singapore has remained the largest importer of rambutans in the world, accounting for more than 60% of world imports.
Rambutan trees are evergreen with a roundish-bushy appearance, growing up to a maximum of 30 m. Its branches are low and wide spread. Its bark is smooth, greyish-brown or reddish-brown. The leaves are simple pinnate compound, 15 to 40 cm long and arranged alternately. Leaflets are elliptical, blunt and up to eight leaflets are arranged in pairs. Flowers are greenish-white, small sized, occur in large bunches, have no petals, are mildly fragrant and are either completely male or bisexual. The male flowers occur on different trees. The flowers have six to eight stamens while the superior ovary has one to two lobes with a single style. Flowering occurs twice a year. Rambutan fruits are hairy, yellow to crimson, redden as they ripen and grow up to 7 to 5 cm in size. The seeds are oval, bitter, single, high in fat, narcotic and covered with the white juicy flesh that is eaten as fruit.
Usage and potential
The rambutan fruit is eaten raw, made into jams or is cooked. The fruit, canned in syrup is directly eaten off the can too. In 1886, wine made of the fruit was put up in an exhibition in London. However, its recipe is unknown and its production is believed to have stopped soon after. The seeds are sometimes roasted and eaten.
The pericarp or the fruit walls, high in tannin and saponin are used in Java for various medicinal purposes. A concoction of it is sold by traditional Malay medicine sellers. The Malays use a decoction of the roots to treat fever. The bark and the fruits are supposed to have astringent properties. The bark, made into a decoction, is used to treat tongue diseases. It is also given after childbirth to new mothers. Rambutan fruit is supposed to have anthelmintic properties, helping one eradicate intestinal worms. It is also used in relieving diarrhoea. The leaves are used as poultices to relieve headaches.
Young shoots are used to dye yellow silk to green. A dye called ayer banyar, made from rambutan leaves and fruits and combined with other ingredients, is used for dyeing red silk black. The wood of the tree though hard tends to split as it dries. It is nevertheless used as timber.
Common name: Rambutan.
Scientific name: Nephelium lappaceum.
Malay name: Rambutan (Malay), Nert, Gente (Malay aborigines).
Chinese name: Hong Mao Dan (Mandarin).
Indonesian name: Rambutan (Javanese), Chorogol, Tundun (Sundanese), Hahuyam, Kakapas (in Sumatra).
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
Burkill, I. H. (1993). A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsula (pp. 1571-1572). Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives.
(Call no.: RSING 634.909595 BUR)
Wee, Y. C. (1992). A guide to medicinal plants (p. 110). Singapore: Singapore Science Centre.
(Call no.: RSING 581.634095957 WEE)
Wee, Y. C. (2003). Tropical trees and shrubs: A selection for urban planting (pp. 234-235). Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing.
(Call no.: SING 582.16095957 WEE)
Chan, E. (2000). Tropical fruits of Malaysia & Singapore. Hong Kong: Periplus Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 581.95957 CHA)
Purdue University, Centre for new crops & plant products. (1995). New crop factsheet: Rambutan. Retrieved on February 11, 2003, from www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/cropfactsheets/Rambutan.html
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.