The Kokum Tree (Garcinia indica) is a member of the Mangosteen family – Clusiaceae. A family of tropical trees and shrubs known for their milky sap and seed capsules, Clusiaceae contains as many as 750 species. Garcinia, the genus to which the Kokum Tree belongs, includes as many as 375 species. Other estimates reduce the genus’ species count drastically to 50. Regardless of the number, the genus happens to be of great botanical and commercial significance in the tropical regions of the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The most famous member of the clade is the Purple Mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), a fruit-bearing tree native to the forests of Southeast Asia. Its juicy, white, sweet-and-sour flesh made it a favourite of the Thai, Malay and Filipino peoples. Other famous cousins of the Kokum Tree include the Bacupari (Garcinia gardneriana) of the Amazon Basin, the Bitter Kola (Garcinia kola) of West Africa, and the Gambooge (Garcinia gummi-gutta) of South and Southeast Asia, to name a few.

The Kokum Tree is a native of the Western Ghats, a chain of rain-drenched, forest-clad mountains that run along the western coast of the Indian Peninsula. It is a large and handsome evergreen tree bearing glossy, dark green, lanceolate leaves that form part of the canopy. Kokum flowers are fleshy and dark pink, being borne in clusters or alone, between November and February. The ripened fruits are the size of oranges, brown or reddish-purple in colour, with large, black seeds (up to 8 in number) and white, juicy pulp. A single tree can bear hundreds of fruits, that turn from green to reddish-purple as they ripen. The Kokum Tree’s seeds are used to extract Kokum Butter, a substance used as vegetable fat. Kokum Butter is seen as a viable alternative to Cocoa Butter (extracted from the the beans of the unrelated Cocoa Tree, Theobroma cacao), for the production of chocolates, confectioneries and cosmetics (creams, lotions, soaps). The pulp is said to be delicious, being consumed raw once the fruit has ripened, or turned into a juice, syrup or concentrate.

The rind is sun-dried to prepare ‘Kokum’ or ‘Aamsul’, a flavoring agent used in the cuisines of the western coastal belt (in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala). It is also turned into a kind of candy, sweetened with sugar. Kokum Trees are also famed for their medicinal extracts. The roots, bark, fruits and seeds (in the form of Kokum Butter, and an oil called Kokum Tel) are collected for treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, piles, intestinal worms, and other dermal, oral and abdominal disorders. Of late, the Kokum Tree has become famous internationally as one of the few natural sources of Hydroxycitric Acid, a compound with the potential to check obesity and inhibit fat generation in human beings. As a result, Kokum extracts (rich in this particular compound) is being marketed as a food supplement to treat obesity. However, this particular property of the Tree has been questioned by some experts. Others have claimed that Hydroxycitric Acid can have harmful effects on people consuming it in the form of anti-obesity suplements.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Garcinia indica falls in the Vulnerable category. This is how the organization describes its range, population and status:

It is found in coastal to evergreen forests. It is an evergreen, perennial, monopodial tree found in the west coast of India, in northern Kerala, coastal Karnataka, Goa and Konkan belt of Maharashtra (Priya Devi et al. 2013). It requires a warm and humid tropical climate. It thrives well in coastal areas receiving over 250 cm of rainfall. It grows well in lateritic, alluvial soils having depth of 1.0 m and pH of 6.7 (Braganza et al. 2012). It has a generation length of 29 years.The population is declining fast in the wild. In Karnataka it occurs along the windward side of Western Ghats in Dakshina Kannada, Coorg, Chickamagalur, Shimoga and Uttara Kannada districts. In Tamil Nadu, it is absent in the wild but planted in Nilgiris. In Maharashtra, it is common along the entire coastal forest and Western Ghats. It is abundant almost throughout Goa. It is commonly cultivated for its fruit.The major threat to this plant is loss of habitat and unsustainable collection of fruits and seeds for medicines. Irrespective of various importance, many species of Garcinia are threatened due to habitat destruction. It was reported that the population density of many species is dangerously low and is reduced to one or two trees in a given locality making survival of these species very difficult. This is further aggravated by the fact that seeds fail to produce seedlings due to various physiological and environmental factors making natural multiplication and maintenance of these species almost impossible (Mohan et al. 2012). The population of this species is also declining due to loss of habitat in terms of agricultural invasion and road construction. This species is in many arboretum and medicinal gardens. This species is commonly cultivated for its fruits. Some attention and efforts have been brought into the system by identifying and documenting more than 100 forest areas (MPCAs). The wild presence of this species has been confirmed from MPCA areas of Agumbe, Devimane, Kollur and Kudremukha in Karnataka and Navaja in Maharashtra. It is expected that the MPCA program will promote in situ conservation of such species.

Given below are the various names by which the Kokum Tree is known in India:

  • Tamil: Murgal Mara
  • Malayalam: Kaatampi
  • Kannada: Murgina, Punarpuli, Devana Huli
  • Tulu: Punarpuli
  • Konkani: Bhirinda, Kokam
  • Marathi: Kokamba, Ratamba, Tambada Amba
  • Gujarati: Kokum
  • Hindi: Kokum
  • Sanskrit: Amlabija, Amlashaka

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows the ripe fruits and glossy foliage of the Kokum Tree. It was uploaded by Ramnath Bhat of Pune, Maharashtra.