The tamanu tree can grow to 98 feet tall and has small, delicate white flowers with yellow centers. In the northern hemisphere, the tree flowers twice a year, in the late fall and in spring.1 Tamanu blossoms have a sweet, lime-like fragrance. The fruit is about the size of an apricot with thin flesh and a large kernel inside. It is this kernel that yields tamanu oil. Tamanu trees are native to Southeast Asia and are abundant in Polynesia.2,3 They prefer sandy soil and grow well on rocky, cliff-bound coasts and coastal slopes.2,4 Tamanu is dispersed throughout the Pacific islands by its nut-containing fruits which fall into the ocean and are carried by sea to other coastal areas where they sprout and root.5,6
History and Cultural Significance
The genus name Calophyllum comes from the Greek, kalos (beautiful) and phullon (leaf). The species is known by many names in the various South Pacific islands. In the Society Islands it is known as tamanu and ti, in Samoa and Tonga as fetau, in Hawaii as kamanu or kamani, and in Fiji as dolno or dilo (meaning “no pain”).6,7,8
In pre-Christian Polynesia, tamanu trees were considered sacred and Polynesians believed that the gods hid in the trees and watched human sacrifices. Idols were carved from the wood.3 Current day Polynesians still hold its fine-grained wood in high regard for making boats, bowls, houses, and handicrafts.7 The tree is also found in the coastal villages as an ornamental tree.4
Tamanu seeds are very high in oil content (75%)3 but its takes up to 220 pounds of fruit to produce 11 pounds of oil.1 Tamanu oil has been used traditionally by Pacific Islanders for thousands of years as a topical skin remedy.2 They also use the seeds and leaves for soothing sores, bites, blisters, dry or scaly skin, scrapes and sunburn, as well as to reduce foot and body odor.8,9,10 The oil is used externally by Polynesian women to promote healthy, smooth skin. They also use it on their babies to prevent diaper rash.8,9,10,11 The Pacific Islanders use an infusion of crushed leaves to bathe infections, inflammations, rashes and sore eyes.4,6 The oil is applied to the neck to relieve sore throat8,9,10 and is massaged into aching joints.2,3,6 Cosmetic companies employ tamanu oil in the preparation of regenerative creams for its soothing qualities.
While there have been some lab and animal studies investigating the restorative properties of tamanu oil, only one human study is available at this time. In this study, tamanu oil used topically showed usefulness as a skin soothing agent.12
Tamanu fruits are collected from the ground after they have fallen from the tree so the practice has no negative impact on the ecology of the tree.2 Tamanu harvesting is a sustainable, positive contribution to small village economies.2 However, due to its relatively new entry into the marketplace, there are currently no market statistics on tamanu.
1 Friday JB, Okano D. Calopyhllum inophyllum (kamani). Special Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry. Version1.2 2005 Available at: http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/Calophyllum(kamani).pdf. Accessed July 8, 2005.
2 Kilham C. Tamanu oil: a tropical topical remedy. HerbalGram. 2004;No. 63:26-31.
3 Dweck AC, Meadows T. Tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum) – the African, Asian, Polynesian and Pacific Panacea. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2002;24:1-8.
4 Whistler WA, Polynesian Herbal Medicine. Kauai, HI: National Tropical Botanical Garden; 1992.
5 Abbot IA. La’au Hawaii, Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press; 1992. Cited in Kilham C, Tamanu oil: a tropical topical remedy. HerbalGram. 2004;No. 63:26-31.
6 Whistler WA, Tongan Herbal Medicine. Honolulu, HI: Isle Botanica; 1992.
7 Cox PA, Banack SA. Islands, Plants, and Polynesians. An Introduction to Polynesian Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press; 1991.
8 Petard P. Tahiti-Polynesian medicinal plants and Tahitian remedies. Noumea, New Caledonia: South Pacific Commission; 1972. Cited in Killham C. Tamanu oil: a tropical topical remedy. HerbalGram. 2004;No. 63:26-31.
9 Chevalier J. Study on a new cicatrizing agent for cutaneous and mucous wounds, oil of Calophyllum inophyllum [doctoral thesis]. Paris, France: Institut de Biologie Normale Superieure; October 1951. Cited in Killham C. Tamanu oil: a tropical topical remedy. HerbalGram. 2004;No. 63:26-31.
10 Sidi E. Oil of Calophyllum inophyllum in dermatology. La Vie Medicale. May 1955:82-88.
11 Steiner RP. Folk medicine- the art and science. Washington DC: American Chemical Society; 1986. Cited in Dweck AC, Meadows T, Tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum) – the African, Asian, Polynesian and Pacific Panacea. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2002;24:1-8.
12 Beausoleil C, Lehman L, et al. Evaluation of the Ability of One Test Product to Improve the Apprearance of Scars. Bioscience Laboratories, Inc., Bozeman, MT (2001. Report #010514-111). Cited in Dweck AC, Meadows T. Tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum) – the African, Asian, Polynesian and Pacific Panacea. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2002;24(6):341-348.