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7 Facts You Might Not Know About The Merbau, Malaysia’s National Tree

Everyone knows that the national animal of Malaysia is the Malayan tiger (scientific name: Panthera tigris). You can’t miss Malaysia’s national flower, the bunga raya (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), which is even featured in the Visit Malaysia Year 2020 logo. But did you know that Malaysia now has a national tree? If you did, good for you. If you didn’t, our national tree is known as merbau. As Malaysia Day approaches, let’s get to know our national tree:

1. Merbau’s Common Names in English

Known as Pokok Merbau in Malay, the tree has several common names in English which includes Borneo teak, Malacca teak, and Moluccan ironwood. It is also dubbed ironwood for its hardness, but this might be confusing as there are many species with the same common name in English, including Borneo ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri or Pokok Belian in Malay) and Ceylon ironwood (Hopea odorata, or Pokok Merawan Siput Jantan in Malay).

2. There’s More Than One Merbau

Some of you who know your trees might know a different merbau that looks different to the national tree. Well, that’s because there’s more than one tree which is called merbau in Malay.

The national tree is Intsia palembanica, which is simply called Pokok Merbau in Malay. But there’s also Intsia bijuga (Pacific teak, scrub mahogany, or Johnstone River teak in English), which is called Pokok Merbau Ipil in Malay. In neighbouring Indonesia, Intsia palembanica is called Merbau Darat (inland merbau) while Intsia bijuga is dubbed Merbau Pantai (coastal merbau).

3. Merbau Can Grow Up Really Tall and Thick

Known as one of the tallest trees in the tropical region, Merbau tree can grow up to 50 metres (around 164 feet) tall. One of the most defining features of the tree that it’s sparsely branched. In fact, it can be free of branches for up to 22 metres (around 72 feet). It can also can reach 150 centimetres (around 59 inches) in width.

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4. Merbau Is In High Demand Due to Its Hardwood

Merbau is kind of a hot thing in the timber world. The timber from merbau is favoured as it is hard, durable and known to be resistant to fungi, wood borers and termites. It is also very tolerant of ocean water as well as saline soils and salt-laden winds. The wood takes a very fine polish, which makes it ideal for uses as furniture and flooring.

5. Merbau Is Also Sought After by Herbalists

The bark and leaves of the merbau are used in traditional medicine, usually to treat diarrhoea and dysentery. Traditional herbs aside, the pharmaceutical industry has also taken an interest in merbau for its skin whitening and anti-acne agents. Studies have shown that merbau has the possibility to to inhibit the lipase activity of Propionibacterium acnes. As for skin whitening, merbau is known for its flavonoid compounds with the potential to inhibit of melanin cell growth.

6. Merbau Can Be Found Everywhere, But Apparently Skips One Island

Despite the scientific name which means from Palembang (the capital of South Sumatra, Indonesia), merbau can be found all over Asia and Pacific from India, Indochina, Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, Philippines and all the way to New Guinea. But curiously, it is apparently absent from Java!

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7. Merbau Is Chosen as Malaysia’s National Tree for Its Hardiness

Merbau was officially announced as Malaysia’s national tree by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his speech when he officiated the Hutan Kita: Journey Through Our Rainforest at the Kuala Lumpur Tower on 23 August 2019. The PM said that he believes that Malaysians can take the merbau as a symbol as national pride due to its hardy nature.  

Hutan Kita: Journey Through Our Rainforest

Get to know merbau, Malaysia’s national tree, and 850 other trees at Hutan Kita: Journey Through Our Rainforest, an exhibition on Malaysian rainforests. The exhibition is happening until 22 September 2019 at Kuala Lumpur Tower (Menara Kuala Lumpur). Opening hours are from 9am to 6pm, and entrance is free.

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Written by Ari Vanuaranu

Albeit claiming to be a vegetarian, this self-professed culture vulture says that he’s willing to make an exception every time he is in an exotic place, as trying the local food is essential to widening a traveller’s horizon. But then each and every single place in the world outside of his hometown in Indonesia’s South Borneo counts as an ‘exotic place’...

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