A deep red oblong cloaked with pliable green wire-like "hairs" - at first sight, the rambutan fruit seems like it came straight out of a Sci-Fi film. But peel away its red rind and you will have the luxury of sinking your teeth into succulent white flesh as nectar-sweet juice trickles down your chin. A few more bites in, however, your teeth will start to peel away rough and brittle flakes of seed coat, bringing an end to the delectable rambutan experience. Sound familiar? That won't be surprising, given the rambutan fruit's almost global distribution. However, savouring the delicious rambutan fruit is where most people's knowledge of the rambutan begins and ends. Nonetheless, there is more to the rambutan than its fruit - read on to find out more about its biology, ecological roles, and taxonomic background!
Origin of name
Nephelium lappaceum is commonly known as the rambutan. The rambutan got its name from its "hairy" fruit, as rambut is the Malay word for 'hair'. Different languages have different colloquialisms for Nephelium lappaceum, but unsurprisingly, most are named after the rambutan's curious fruit. For example, in Vietnamese the rambutan fruits are called chôm chôm, which means 'messy hair,' while in Mandarin, the rambutan fruits are known as 紅毛丹 (hóng máo dān), which translates to red hair.1
Origins, cultivation and domestication
While it is accepted that the rambutan is native to the Malaysia and Indonesia region, due to its long history of being cultivated, the origins of the rambutan are not well-known. The rambutan has been cultivated for a long time throughout the Southeast Asian Archipelago owing to its sweet fruit. From Malaysia, the cultivation of rambutan spread North to Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, India and Vietnam. In 1912 the rambutan was introduced to the Philippines from Indonesia and in 1930s, was introduced to Australia. After the 1930s, the rambutan was introduced to countries as far as Costa Rica and Honduras in South America. It is also plausible that the rambutan was introduced to Africa by Arab traders through the Indian Ocean trade networks. 1 2 After the 1950s, the introduction of rambutan became more widespread globally. Rambutan is nowadays commercially grown in Southern Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, India, Sri Lanka, Florida, Hawaii and South and Central America. 3 .
Increased global demand resulted in efforts to domesticate the Nephelium lappaceum, i.e. improve the favourable aspects of rambutan fruits such as the longevity of the fruit, its sweetness, and its flesh to seed ratio. Selective breeding resulted in over 200 cultivars being produced. Singapore has two commercial cultivars, namely "Jit Lee" and "Deli Cheng". Some of these cultivars are sweeter, have longer shelf-life post harvest and have a higher flesh to seed ratio. There are also "freestone" cultivars where the flesh and seed separates easily. 4 Therefore if you want to prevent the problem of having the seed coat stuck to the rambutan flesh, keep your eyes peeled for "freestone" cultivars!
Distribution in Singapore
Although Nephelium lappaceum is cultivated in Singapore and can be found along road sides and in parks such as Windsor Nature Park, the rambutan is actually critically endangered in the wild in Singapore. 5 Click here and type in "Nephelium lappaceum" to use the Nparks - tree.sg to find out where you can find rambutan trees in Singapore!
Relevance to humans
The fruit of Nephelium lappaceum is favoured by many and therefore plays a major economical role in some Southeast Asian countries that are major exporters of rambutan, such as Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The rambutan's economical role is also seen in tourism campaigns in countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, where the rambutan's exotic nature is used to boost tourism, especially to tourists outside of Asia. It sure helps that a single rambutan tree can produce up to 5,000 to 6,000 fruits (60 - 70kg) twice a year!4 Additionally, the flesh of the rambutan fruit is highly nutritious, containing rich amounts of vitamin C, calcium, potassium and magnesium. 4 The flesh is normally eaten raw on its own or in fruit salads, made into jams, preserved in cans or even stewed as a dessert. Traditionally, the rambutan has been used as a cure for diarrhoea and dysentery. Its roots can also be made into a decoction and drunk to reduce fever. 1 While many people associate rambutan with the consumption of its juicy flesh, rambutan seeds are actually eaten as well. Despite the seeds containing toxins and being poisonous when raw, the seeds are sometimes roasted and eaten in the Philippines. Rambutan seeds also contain high fat content which can be made into edible oil and can even be used for soap and candle making.4 In addition, research has suggested that the fatty acid composition of rambutan seeds makes it suitable for use as a cosmetics ingredient6 - a plus point for the highly popular au naturel movement in the cosmetics industry!
Nephelium lappaceum's seed and fruit peel have even been found to contain antioxidant and antibacterial properties which might prove to be an easily accessible source of antioxidant and antimicrobial in the future.7 As if that was not enough, the use of rambutan peel for the production of activated carbon is being researched as a cheap alternative precursor for the preparation of activated carbon as well as its role in reducing the cost of waste management.8 May you appreciate the entire rambutan fruit the next time you bite into its juicy flesh!
Interaction with animals
In Singapore, the Nephelium lappaceum tree plays an important role in the ecosystem. It provides food and shelter for animals such as birds, insects and mammals.
The banded leaf monkey, also known as the raffles banded langur is known to feed on the leaves of the rambutan tree.
Image taken by Lim Hong Yao (@hongs.photos), permission granted.
The leaves of the rambutan tree provide food for the critically endangered banded leaf monkey (Presbytis femoralis)9 , long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis), and leaf insects from the genus Phyllium10 .
Oriental pied hornbill on rambutan tree in Singapore.
Image taken by: Johny Wee, Bird Ecology Study Group. (Permission pending)
Its colourful and juicy fruits attract many birds and mammals who eat the fruits and help to disperse its seeds. According to the Bird Ecology Study Group, some of these include the Oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris)11 , long-tailed parakeet (Psittacula longicauda)12 , red-breasted parakeet (Psittacula alexandri)13 , brown-throated sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis), blue-crowned hanging parrot (Loriculus galgulus)13 , lesser dog-faced fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis)14 , and plantain squirrel (Callosciurus notatus)15 .
Besides providing food, the Nephellium lappaceum also hosts birds and insects such as the scaly-breasted munia (Lonchura punctulata)16 ,greater banded hornet (Vespa tropica) and lesser banded hornet (Vespa affinis)17 . It is also the host plant for the Blue Nawab (Polyura schreiber tisamenus) caterpillar18 .
Now that we know more about the uses of Nephelium lappaceum (not just its fruit!), let's delve into some technicalities associated with it. To understand how N. lappaceum grows and how to spot it plant in the wild, it would be useful to learn some general botany terms.
What is a compound leaf?
Essentially, there are two kinds of leaves in the world - compound leaves and simple leaves. A simple leaf is the usually green organ of plants specialised for photosynthesis, whereas a compound leaf usually consists of many leaflets. However, people usually mistake leaflets of compound leaves for simple leaves. A leaf is identified by an axillary bud at the base of the petiole (stalk) of the leaf. One that looks like a leaf but lacks an axillary bud is known as a leaflet that is a part of a compound leaf.
Parts of a compound leaf.
Image by Chan Pin Jia
A simple leaf.
Image by Chan Pin Jia
What are the parts of a flower?
A flower can contain male parts, female parts or both (a hermaphrodite flower).
The male part is called the stamen and it consists of:
The female part is called the pistil and it consists of:
Image by: Mariana Ruiz LadyofHats [Public domain], obtained from Wikimedia Commons.
Edited by Chan Pin Jia
Pollination of Nephelium lappaceum
In order for the Nephelium lappaceum to grow its juicy, multi-purpose fruits, its flowers first have to be pollinated with the help of bees, butterflies and flies. These insects are attracted to the it's aromatic flowers and nectar.
19 . Below is a short video of honey bees visiting the rambutan flowers.
Size of Nephelium lappaceum
Nephelium lappaceum tree is an evergreen tree which is usually around 10 metres tall but capable of growing up to 30 metres. Cultivated trees are usually shorter and often pruned to 5 metres to allow easier harvesting of fruits.21
Leaves of Nephelium lappaceum
Pinnately compound with each leaf having 1-6 leaflets
|Single compound leaf of a rambutan tree with 6 leaflets. Image taken by Chan Pin Jia|
Leaves alternate but leaflet opposite
|Texture:||Leaflets are coriaceous (leathery) and glabrous (smooth) or sometimes slightly hairy on the midrib above while variably hairy beneath.|
Ovate to obovate
Images obtained from: The Kew Plant Glossary23
Strongly curved to nearly straight and parallel
Acute to rounded
Images obtained from: The Kew Plant Glossary23 Image on left edited by: Chan Pin Jia
Acute to truncate
Images obtained from: The Kew Plant Glossary23
Flowers and fruits of the Nephelium lappaceum
The easiest way to identify a plant species is through the flowers and fruits if they are present.
Each Nephelium lappaceum tree bears only one type of flowers. It can either bear flowers that are male, or hermaphrodite flowers that poses both male and female flower parts. However, the hermaphrodite flowers can only function as either male or female flowers, because the other part would be non-functional despite being present.1 Trees that bear hermaphrodite flowers functioning as female flowers are known as female trees as they bear fruits and the male flower parts do not release pollen. Therefore trees are either functionally male or female, which prevents self-fertilisation. This is to avoid in-breeding depression from occurring. However, due to artificial selection of desirable traits via cultivation, some rambutan trees are able to bear fruits without undergoing fertilisation.19 Flowers of the Nephelium lappaceum are usually apetalous or reduced in size, greenish white in colour, and about 2 mm in diameter. Its flowers also emit a sweet scent. 22 The calyx has four to six pubescent lobes.19
Picture of hermaphrodite flowers with male and female flower parts.
The stigma is the "T-shaped" structure in the middle of the flowers while the stamen are the clubbed like structures extending towards the side of the flowers. Lobed calyx is seen below the reduced petals.
The well known fruit of the Nephelium lappaceum is ellipsoid shaped, with many spiny hairs called spinterns extending from the rind of the fruit. It is green when immature but can be yellow or red when mature, depending on cultivar. The flesh inside is white to translucent, tasting sweet and juicy.
|Ripened yellow rambutans peeled to expose translucent white flesh. Image taken by: Tu7uh, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under creative commons 3.0.|
Similar looking fruits
Now that you know what a Nephelium lappaceum tree looks like, it is also important to keep a look out for these similar-looking fruits. The rambutan is closely related to other tropical fruits such as the longan (Dimocarpus longan) and the lychee (Litchi chinensis) that belongs in the soapberry family of Sapindaceae. Another fruit that is more closely related to would be the pulasan (Nephelium mutabile), that belongs in the same genus. While the leaves and their arrangement may look the same as the rambutan, the mature fruits are easily distinguishable.
The pulasan fruit also has a red and spiny rind with white juicy sweet flesh. However, its spinterns are much shorter, appearing more spiny than hairy. The rind is also thicker as compared to the rambutan.24 The pulasan tree is smaller with more open branches and have narrower leaflets as compared to the rambutan tree.
Image under Public domain, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.
The lychee fruit also has a rough red rind and white flesh but its lighter coloured rind and lack of spinterns differentiates it from the rambutan.
Image obtained from pixabay.com, licensed under creative commons CC0.
The longan is spherical in shape and has a distinct golden brown colour when mature.
Image obtained from pixabay.com, licensed under creative commons CC0.
Taxonomy and Systematics
Description and Synonyms
Nephelium Lappaceum was first formally discovered and described by the famous botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus in 1767, using the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature. The original description of N. lappaceum is found in Mantissa Plantarum. Generum Editionis vi et Specierum Editionis ii. on page 125.
|Original description of Nephelium lappaceum at page 125 of Mantissa Plantarum. Generum Editionis vi et Specierum Editionis ii. (1767). Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library, contributed by New York Botanical Garden, Luesther T Mertz Library.|
The nomenclatural type, simply known as a type, is a physical specimen that creates a permanent link between specimen and name. For plants, this specimen usually consists of various parts of the plant such as a branch with attached leaves and inflorescence. The specimen is preserved and kept safely in a herbarium. There are many different kind of types and here are some of the definitions.
Definition of types:25
Holotype: The most important type. The original description is based off this specimen when named and described by the author.
Isotype: A duplicate specimen of the holotype.
Syntype: Specimens that are assigned as type when there is no holotype or when more than one specimens are assigned as the type during initial description publication. Also known as syntype series.
Lectotype: A single specimen selected from among the syntype series to be binding.
The Syntype of Nephelium lappaceum was collected from Indonesia, Java in 1957 by and stored in herbarium of Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, formerly Leiden University.
Syntype stored in herbarium of Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, formerly Leiden University.
Image from JSTOR's Global Plants Database.
Linnaeus described the Nephelium lappaceum as a species because it had unique characters that are stable and non-plastic that differentiated it from other species. Linnaeus lived in a time of creationism and believed that every species was created unique and stable and had significant differences from other species. He learnt of differences between males, females and juveniles within species and was careful not to be misled.26 27 Thus, he did not use characteristics that were variable like that of flower colour and size but instead used non-variable characters like the morphology and reproductive structures. He did not use a typological species concept as he did not base his species of a single specimen as he collected many syntype specimens probably to study the variations within species and establish the unique characters for comparison with other species.
His basis of a species is similar with that of the Phylogenetic Species Concept (PSC) (sensu Wheeler and Platnick) where combinations of unique, non-variable character states within a population are used to differentiate between species. Hence, Linnaeus used the PSC (sensu Wheeler and Platnick) to determine that Nephelium lappaceum is a species.
Initially, he also believed that each species reproduced to give rise to the same species with the same unique characters. This would seem to suggest reproductive isolation being a criteria for a species as offsprings retained the unique characters. However, he later came to acknowledge that hybridisation or interbreeding between two species created new species and therefore reproductive isolation is not a criteria for a species.26 In the case of Nephelium lappaceum, many cultivars have been developed in pursuit of the most desirable fruits. These cultivars have noticeable variations such as shorter trees that enable ease of harvesting, and fruits that are yellow when ripe.1 However, the unique characters used to identify it as a species (e.g. reproductive parts) do not change and all of these different cultivars can still be established as a single species.
The classification of the Nephelium lappaceum is obtained and adapted from the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS). 28
|Superdivision:||Embryophyta (land plants)|
|Division:||Tracheophyta (vascular plants)|
|Subdivision:||Spermatophytina (seed plants)|
|Family||Sapindaceae (Soapberry family)|
Phylogenetic tree of genus
There has been few phylogenetic studies within the Nephelium genus. One study by Harrington et al. studied the phylogenetic relationships within the Sapindaceae family using a combination of the rbcL and matK plastid genes (Chloroplast DNA genes). These genes have been used extensively and shown to be effective for studying plant phylogenies at the family and subfamily level.29 Most genera were represented by several species (>10), and Nephelium lappaceum was one of the species sampled to represent genus Nephelium. Parsimony and Bayesian analysis were carried out on three datasets, two separate datasets of each gene and one combined dataset of both genes. The most parsimonious trees produced from all three datasets show three major clades; I, II and III respectively, with bootstrap support of varying confidence. Subclade B within clade III receives good support from all three datasets and consist of the genus of Cubilia, Dimocarpus, Litchi, Nephelium, and Pometia. The rambutan's genus Nephelium is shown to be a monophyletic group with high support value of 99. There is also strong support that Nephelium is closely related to it's sister genus Pometia. However, the support values within the sister group of Nephelium and Pometia seems to be rather low, implying that the support for the relationship between the other genera in subclade B might not be strong. Thus, it can be established that Nephelium and Pometia can be positioned as sister taxon in the tree of life.30 One of the phylogenetic trees produced from the heuristic search of the matK data is shown below, with acceptable bootstrap and posterior probability support values for subclade B.
Figure 1: Phylogenetic tree constructed with Maximum parsimony using matK data. Nephelium lappaceum shown in subclade B with some species representing closely related species genera.
Bootstrap values >50% shown on branches. Clades receiving more than or equals 95% PP in Bayesian analysis marked *. Major clades labeled I–III; subclades labeled A–D.
Image from: Harrington, M., Edwards, K., Johnson, S., Chase, M. and Gadek, P. (2005). Phylogenetic Inference in Sapindaceae sensu lato Using Plastid matK and rbcL DNA Sequences. Systematic Botany, 30(2), pp.366-382. (Adapted by: Chan Pin Jia)
Apetalous: Petals of the flower are absent.
Creationism: It is a religious belief that all life were created by a divine power and did not originate from natural processes.
Evergreen tree: A tree that has leaves throughout the year and does not shed its leaves all at once.
In-breeding depression: The amplification of deleterious genes resulting in weakened biological fitness in the subsequent offspring generation.
Pubescent: Description of something covered with short, fine and soft hairs.
Plastid: Membrane-bound organelle found in eukaryotes (multicellular organisms).
Reproductive isolation: Genetic barriers preventing reproduction of viable fertile offspring.
Synonym: A scientific name that refers to the same taxon but is no longer in use.
Species concept: It a basis and working definition of a species.
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|30||Harrington, M., Edwards, K., Johnson, S., Chase, M. and Gadek, P. (2005). Phylogenetic Inference in Sapindaceae sensu lato Using Plastid matK and rbcL DNA Sequences. Systematic Botany, 30(2), pp.366-382.|