Lead Tree

Leucaena leucocephala

Herbs gallery - Lead Tree

Common names

  • Lead Tree

The lead tree belongs to the genus Leucaena, which comprises flowering plants of the sub-family Mimosoideae. All these plants are members of the legume family Fabaceae. This plant family comprises roughly 24 species of shrubs as well as trees that are commonly called the lead trees. These trees have their origin in the Americas and are found growing naturally over a vast region ranging from Texas in the USA southwards to Peru in South America. The generic name of the tree has been drawn from the Greek term "leukos", which denotes "white" and has reference to the flowers of the lead tree (botanical name Leucaena leucocephala).

The lead trees are undersized trees that grow up to an utmost height of 8 meters. This tree produces small compounded leaves measuring anything between 15 cm and 25 cm in length. These leaves appear together with even smaller leaflets whose length varies from 7 mm to 12 mm. As the leaves have a compound structure, often some people may mistake a lead tree for the moringa tree (botanical name Moringa oleifera). However, when one takes a closer look at the leaves, they can differentiate them from those of moringa just because of their dissimilar leaf structure. The leaves of the lead tree have a close resemblance to the mimosa (botanical name Mimosa pudica), instead of the moringa tree's markedly "ace-of-clubs" shaped leaves. In addition, it is possible to detect a lead tree as its bark is rough and the branches are akin to those of shrubs.

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The lead tree is a familiar species, especially for its white flowers that have a globular shape and bear resemblance to fuzz-balls. In addition, the fruits of the lead tree too have a unique shape. The flattened seed pods of the tree enclose several seeds - anything between five and thirteen. Usually, seed pods of mature trees contain more seeds. Although the lead tree has its original home in Central America, currently it is found growing in several regions worldwide, especially in areas having tropical and sub-tropical climatic conditions. Since time immemorial, the wood of this tree has been used as a fuel. In addition, people have used the lead tree in the form of a medicinal plant, a landscaping plant and the primitive societies have also used the tree as their food source.

The lead tree is certainly very versatile. It is also used as a sort of livestock feed. Most tribal societies in the Philippines have used the lead tree as fodder since the prehistoric time owing to the tree's ability to fill up and then bulk-up their livestock. As the lead tree is hardy and also has a productive nature, it is believed to be an invasive plant, sometimes even a pest, in many areas of the world. As a result, this tree is mainly preferred as a fuel.

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Parts used

Fruits, seeds, root, leaves.

Uses

The lead tree is very versatile and is used for a number of purposes. It is mainly used in the form of foodstuff, particularly in the rural areas, where the fruits of this tree, which bear resemblance to the flattened seed pods of pea or tamarind, are consumed in the form of a vegetable. Usually, the seed pods are eaten when they are still unripe. They are just parboiled or sautéed and have taste like a crunchy, partly sweet vegetable that is generally included in soup-based preparations. Once the seed pods become mature, the seeds are removed and consumed as a snack food after cooking. Usually, they are eaten after frying, slight toasting or roasting. In addition, the seeds of lead tree are used for therapeutic purposes, as people believe that they are wonderful as an emollient and purgative.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the seeds of lead tree are usually taken internally to eliminate ringworms and roundworms from our body. In Filipino folk medicine, the grounded seeds are roasted and employed as an emollient for treating dry, inflamed or broken skin. Generally, the lead tree seeds yield oil that possesses healing properties. This oil is refined further employing crude straining techniques. This oil is usually employed as a base for medicinal liniments and ointments. However, it has been found that this oil is itself a very powerful antifungal and antimicrobial agent, which has been used by local healers for treating a variety of skin disorder since time immemorial. As the seeds of lead tree yield oil in very low concentrations, the oil extracted from these seeds is usually blended with various other base oils, mostly coconut oil, which also possesses potent remedial properties independently. This practice is mainly followed in Filipino folk medicine.

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In addition to the therapeutic uses of the various parts of lead tree, its seeds are also used as a substitute for coffee. This is a very widespread use of lead tree seeds, particularly in the mountainous regions, where the native inhabitants cannot afford to purchase coffee either for its expensive price or owing to its unavailability in the region. Consuming "coffee" prepared from lead tree roasted seeds may, however, offer some health benefits. Findings of a number of studies have revealed that the seeds enclose polysaccharides, which have anti-carcinogenic qualities.

The raw pulverized seeds of lead tree are also used by the confectionary and pharmaceutical industries as a substitute for guar gum. This is because the properties of these seeds are similar to those of guar gum. As a result, they are effective as binder for manufacture of medicinal tablets. In fact, in traditional Chinese medicine, this binding ability of lead tree seeds has been used very effectively even before the pharmaceuticals starting using them for making tablets and pills. The sap exuded by lead trees also yields a binding substance that is similar to gum Arabic. Hence, the sap is also used in the same manner as the powdered seeds of lead trees. They are widely used in the form of binders for traditionally made pills and tablets.

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Even the lead tree leaves are used for many significant purposes. However, their therapeutic worth is very little. Generally, the leaves of this tree are used in the form of fodder for poultry and livestock. They are mostly mixed with custom-mixed or readymade feeds. The leaves are loaded with protein and, hence, they are useful in "bulking-up" livestock more rapidly. However, it is important to note that consumption of lead tree leaves in large amounts may result in undesirable side-effects among livestock, especially hair loss and sterility. This is mainly because the leaves contain natural compounds like leucenol and mimosine.

The bark of lead tree is often used in the form of a mild emmenagouge. Usually, it is used individually, but when it is blended with the dried out leaves and seeds of the tree to prepare an extremely strong decoction, the bark yields a powerful purgative, which has the potential to turn out to be dangerous sometimes. However, this decoction is very effective for eliminating all intestinal parasites from the body. This decoction is also used externally in the form of a rinse to effectively eradicate flea and lice infestations in humans as well as animals. However, the efficiency of the bark decoction varies in humans and animals.

The root of lead tree may also be used by itself in the same manner for the above-mentioned purposes. However, using the roots in combination with the bark of the tree offers better results. A potent decoction made from the lead tree root is not only a very useful emmenagogue, but it is also effective as an abortifacient. Since before the time when the Spanish conquered the Philippines and established settlements there, local tribes had been using the roots of lead tree for this purpose.

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When taken in moderate amounts, the use of lead tree leaves in the form of a vegetable as well as the plant's pods and seeds is safe. However, when taken in large amounts they may lead to undesirable side effects such as alopecia (in males and females) and sterility in women, as they enclose mimosine in addition to a toxic chemical called leucenol. It has been found that the body's absorption of these toxic chemicals has only been significant when the seeds, pods and leaves of lead tree were heated and prepared in clay pots. Therefore, it is advisable that one should only cook the different parts of lead tree in utensils made from cast-iron, as this will prevent the body from taking up mimosine, particularly when these parts are used in the form of a food. As in the case of any other herbal remedy, pregnant women as well as nursing mothers should avoid internal use of decoctions prepared from the bark and root of lead tree. At the same time, women ought to minimize or altogether discontinue the use of lead tree seed pods as a vegetable during their pregnancy.

The seeds of lead tree are typically used by Indian as well as Filipino shamans to create necklaces, which are made by stringing beads (seeds in this case) together. In some regions of India and Malaysia and also in chosen rural and provincial regions of the Philippines, people use the seeds of lead tree for creating rosaries or prayer beads. These are used for meditation or prayers.

According to Filipino shamanism, the seeds of lead tree are believed to provide one protection from evil creatures and forest spirits (locally known as anito) if they wear the necklace made from them. In fact, one can find local healers wearing such necklaces when they trek long distances to collect herbs. Some Filipino shamans, especially in rural regions, include animistic-Christian hybridized magick and they use necklaces made from lead tree seeds as a substitute for rosaries. In addition, necklaces made from the seeds of lead tree are also used in invocations, evocations and general prayer. People also burn lead tree seeds as an incense with a view to pacify forest spirits. Alternatively, in Filipino shamanism, such necklaces are also used to draw little folks like faeries (diwata) and/ or dwarves (duwende) with a view to get their help.

Apart from the various uses of lead tree discussed above, it is also an excellent source of fuel. Generally, its wood forms a raw material for making charcoal or simply used as firewood. As the wood of lead tree has a higher density and is heavy by weight (particularly in species that are mature), people have employed it in the form of a medium for carpentry and carving, especially the tribes where these trees grow naturally. There was a time when the heft, weight as well as the sturdiness of the wood of lead tree were a prime choice for making primal blunt weapons, in addition to employing it to make a wide range of simple tools, which the native tribes used for their daily activities. Even in present times, the wood of this tree is used as a fuel and also in the form of a raw material for creating practical as well as artistic craft items both in the countryside and also semi-urbanized areas. However, in the semi-urbanized areas, the wood is mainly used as a fuel source.

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