Chrysophyllum imperiale again, and again

I've mentioned what I call the Royal Tree, Chrysophyllum imperiale, a few times now in my blog. I proclaimed it to be my favourite plant in Sydney, resulting it appearing in this painting (along with ginger and some wollemi pines in the background) by Hadyn Wilson (at right).

The specimen in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden certainly has a fine royal pedigree. As I explained in a 2009 post, Queen Victoria's son Prince Alfred planted this tree during an eventful visit to Australia in 1868 (he survived an assassination attempt while in Sydney).

The species name imperiale I gather is more a reference to its impressive leaves and perhaps (like the genus name) also to its golden (to rusty tawny) tinged new growth, than any connection with royalty. The 150-year-old specimen in Sydney displays these attributes well.

Chrysophyllum is classified in the plant family Sapotaceae, along with various genera hardly known in Australia but important in tropical regions for timber, food and medicine. Chrysophyllum canito yields the star apple, but otherwise this genus is mostly for ornament and local habitat.

Earlier this year I saw another fine specimen of Chrysophyllum imperiale, this time in the botanic garden of Buenos Aires (Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays) where as I reported two weeks ago they also do a nice line in mariposas. Their tree didn't always look so good, and to be fair it's on the mend rather than in peak condition. Until a few years ago a sewer from the administration building overflowed or somehow released its contents into the soil nearby. Once that flow was stemmed, the tree started to improve almost immediately, albeit retaining a yellowish complexion.

The Director, Graciela Barriero, was unable to tell me how old the tree was but I imagine it was planted early in the twentieth century by the original designer of the garden, Carlos Thays.

The species itself is extremely rare and probably extinct in its natural habitat around Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. In fact while I was in Sydney we were approached by either the botanic garden or environmental agency for seed to use for restoration.

I forgot on my visit to Jardim Botanico do Rio de Janeiro to look out for this species but emailed the Director of Environment and Technology, Claudison Rodrigues, soon after I returned to ask whether they had any specimens in the botanic garden. The response was yes, four plants, all 'young, but strong' plus a few waiting to be planted out. I wonder if these are from seed we provided from Sydney?

In any case, it's a tree that could be grown more widely in botanic gardens. A bit big for most home gardens but a fascinating and attractive specimen tree for a specialist collection.

I hadn't noticed any here in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens but was pleased to discover some on our census. There are just a couple, tucked away to give them protection from the hot Melbourne summer, and perhaps its cool winters, but in time I expect they too will emerge through the undergrowth to attract right royal attention.

Postscript (14 July 2015, 8.00 am): This morning I found this note, posted on the Tropical Fruit Forum on 11 October 2012, by Paul Recher from Dorroughby in far north-eastern NSW, Australia: 
This tree [i.e. Chrysophyllum imperiale] is native to the Atlantic, from the coastal region of Rio de Janeiro (today almost entirely urbanized area) to the southeast of the state of Minas Gerais, in the Parque do Rio Doce. [It] was abundant at the time of colonial Brazil, today is considered endangered in the wild. Being a large tree, very hard wood, and beautiful and tasty fruit, was appreciated by Emperor D. Pedro I, and also by his son, D. Pedro II, who sent copies to botanical gardens around the world. During the Second Empire and was unusual because of its logging for timber to build their ships, becoming even rarer after the end of the Empire. Incredibly, Republicans Pernambucana the famous Revolution of 1817 cut all copies, including growing in Brazilian gardens by the fact that his name was associated with the Emperor! Until the early twenty-first century, there were only a few known specimens, all adults, and most outside Brazil, in the following collections:
  • Botanical Garden of Lisbon, Portugal (planted in 1878) 
  • Farroupilha Park in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul 
  • Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia (planted in 1868) 
  • Carlos Thays Botanical Garden, in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina 
  • Botanical Garden of Brussels, Belgium 
  • Botanical Garden of Florence, Italy 
There is now a group of people from several countries that deals with the search and preservation of specimens of this species and work to reproduce by seeds. This is a work of great importance as it will allow the restoration and maintenance of the same individuals in the wild, so to save the endangered species. This group achieved two major successes: relict specimens discovered in the wild, in the region of the Parque Estadual do Rio Doce and Pingo Dagua east of Minas Gerais. were also discovered at least one copy in a remnant of native forest in the state of Rio de Janeiro in submontane forest environment ombrófila dense, at an altitude of 200 m around the Baía Guanabara. It measures about 20 to 25 m high, and appears to have more than 100 years old. Currently, in parts of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are planted several individuals of this species, which grow with some difficulty, because it is a slow growing tree and very demanding on soil and climate. The copy of the photograph [the same tree in Buenos Aires that I photographed] is the oldest of those found in Argentina, and was sent by D. Pedro II. J. In this Botanical grow two more copies of more than 10 years, generated from seeds that were sent from Sydney. From the same origin and age is the individual who grows in the Botanical Garden of the Faculty of Agriculture of Buenos Aires.


Stuart Read said…
Tim I share your fascination with Chrysophyllum imperial and can vouch for 3 more Sydney ones: 1) one in Manly's Ivanhoe Park 'Botanic Gardens' which is about 5 x 3m (age?); the newly-planted one by Netherlands Princess in Royal Bot.Gardens, Sydney near the lotus pond (site of a magnificent former swamp cypress/Taxodium mucronatum, RIP) and my own modest effort in a pot, with at best 5 leaves at a time - perhaps 6 or 8 years old at most. Last few months (forget which exactly) I came across carnage underneath the Prince Alfred 1868 tree in RBGS, which clearly fruits happily - seeds on the ground, mangled fruits, which must be appealing to bats? or birds? So the source of the baby plant I bought from the Friends of RBGS must've been seed from this very veteran tree, which is clearly fertile and fruiting in Sydney. Bravo, and yes, more please!
Tim Entwisle said…
Nice to know that this tree is source of plants from Rio to the Read backyard. And I think it's probably the flying foxes - but you'll be able to check this in a few years (decades...). As for Melbourne, not sure it is well suited to here but it's often surprising what will do well with a little care and attention. In life generally!
Anonymous said…
I got one ..wish i had planted several... For some reason not a robust specimen like one in Sydney gardens... I feed it well.. about 8 m high and narrow paul recher
Tim Entwisle said…
Our ones in the Melbourne Gardens are pretty poor so might be a climatic or microclimatic thing - need just the right amount of protection/water/soil to get going. But worth persisting with Paul.
Very interesting blog. A lot of blogs I see these days don't really provide anything that attract others, but I'm most definitely interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.
Paul Recher said…
Regretably I only planted one 33 years ago. It is doing okay which is a disappointment as it should be much more robust growing or so I thought. Hmmm maybe I only got one seed up because knowing me it makes no sense I would not have planted out at least two if I had hem. The tree is single trunked for 3m then two major limbs but not the round crown as syd bot gardens.. much thinner and lankier growing.
Tim Entwisle said…
Definitely not so happy, at least so far, in the Melbourne Gardens (cd Sydney). One of those trees that struggles to get great form I think...
Romulo Soares said…
Hello, I am a forest student in Brazil and at the time I'm doing a student exchange in Germany. I will go back to Brazil on about february 2016. As someone interested in preservation and ecology, I would like to know if it would be possible to send me some seeds of this tree. I mean, there are almost no exemplars in Brazil and 99% of the people in Brazil do not know this species. I would plant some seeds on the campus of my university, "Federal University of Mato Grosso" (Cuiabá) and the rest of them on the bioma "Mata Atlântica", were live my family and is the original bioma of this species.

Viele Grüsse,
Tim Entwisle said…
Hi Romulo,
There might be some seed available from the botanic garden in Rio - I'm pretty sure they have grown specimens there now and perhaps they have already started to produce fruit?
Otherwise you would need to ask someone at Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden. We only had a few seed here but they will have more. You could email the Deputy Director, Dr Brett Summerell (
Best wishes, Tim
Fairie Losopher said…
I have two of these (very small, 3 leaves each), i've had for about a year or so. THey're not happy. They dont seem to like being then i dont feed them, and they dont much like that either. I've got one in pinebark, peat and perlite and the other and sharp sand & potting mix. Any thoughts regarding what they might like for dinner would be greatly appreciated.
Tim Entwisle said…
Not sure about what to feed them but would recommend pulling back a bit on food, and also making sure they are in a well drained soil. However Sydney Botanic Gardens grow this species well so perhaps ask them for further advice. Tim
Paul Recher said…
Tree in as protected a spot as at Sydney on well drained basalt soil in warm wet frost free subtropics and well fed. Looks okay just not a robust 'full' formed tree. Should post a picture
Tim Entwisle said…
Our trees in Melbourne Gardens still looking a bit sad but I think this is a tree that often doesn't have a 'perfect' form.
Paul Recher said…
'Good' to hear of poor form in Melb. Could well be habit of tree and in time will fill out. After all when i first saw the tree @ Syd it was already circa 100. Maybe it looked not as good for a few decades.
Anonymous said…
I have 10 trees planted as street trees in Alstonville in northern NSW. They seem to vary in growth rate from individual to individual. They also seem to sit for a few years then take off. The tallest is about 8 feet and a bit sparse, but a few of the others are are thickening up and up to 6 feet high.

My soil is 30 metres deep basalt soil and they seem to like a top dressing with manure. No fruit as yet. The first was planted in 2008 and I've had to replace a few. I make sure I water the younger ones, now. I wasn't as good at this initially which explains the failures.
Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks for the feedback on Alstonville. Sounds like they take a while for their roots to get established, before they put energy into the above ground part of the plant. All good strategy for long time survival! So good watering when young and some fertilising. Should be an avenue worth visiting in a few decades. Thanks, Tim
River P said…
Oh yes this is one of my favourite trees. I like them when they are young as the leaves can be enormous, very architectural as single stemmed juveniles. They like a fair bit of shade to get off fast and well unless you have immaculate humidity. Good rainfall is a given but also a dryish season. In Bangkok where they do very well I've seen a fair number scattered about but no where common. Always eye catching. Finding seedlings is difficult, in fact I've never seen any under trees even where they are growing on unkempt areas. Not sure why. Not for lack of asking but I've never seen them for sale at the plant market either. I gather bats eat the fruit and humans.

Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks for that River P. I think the low humidity and at times low rainfall may be a problem in Melbourne. Sydney seems perfect - good rain in summer and higher humidity. Sydney were able to collect and grow some seeds, through their Friend of the Gardens group. Tim
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Marco Rossignoli said…
Hello Tim,
I have to plants here at my home in Newcastle which I grew from seeds I collected at the Sydney botanical gardens back in early 1990s.
They are still in their large pots which I haven’t replanted. Kind of like a huge Bonsai.
Would be happy to donate to someone if they could be planted ?
Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks for your message Marco. There may be someone out there who would like to receive your 'huge bonsai'. I know the Friends of the Sydney Botanic Gardens also sell this species from time to time, so there should be a few small plants available. Our two specimens at Melbourne Gardens continue to grow slowing but the climate is not ideal down here.
Best wishes, Tim