Cordia (Cordia subcordata)

Cordia subcordata flower
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Cordia fact file

Cordia description

GenusCordia (1)

Cordia subcordata is a slender and elegant coastal tree which is enshrouded in folklore and tradition. For example, in Tuamotuan mythology, this species, which is known as ‘kou’ throughout much of Polynesia, is believed to have been one of the first trees created on Earth. In Tongan legend, the demigod Maui discovered fire and hid it in the kou tree, the breadfruit, and the coconut. The tree is known as ‘kerosene wood’ in Papua New Guinea, as it is traditionally used for fuel to make fires which may be started by rubbing two pieces of the wood together (3).

Cordia subcordata is a small to medium sized evergreen tree, with a broad, dense crown, a spreading canopy and angular branches (2) (3) (4). The trunk is straight and erect, covered in grooves and fissures and with flaky, pale grey bark (3) (4) (5). The heartwood of Cordia subcordata has beautiful reddish, pale brown or dark brown markings, with hints of purple, dark brown and black streaks, contrasting distinctly with the straw-coloured sapwood (4) (5).

The large, smooth, oval-shaped leaves of Cordia subcordata are alternate and have wavy edges and blunt-pointed ends, with prominent veins visible on the leaf surface (2) (3) (4). The leaves are generally a light green colour and are shiny above and dull below (3). Cordia subcordata produces beautiful clusters of scentless, bright orange flowers. Borne at the ends of the branches, the flowers are large and funnel-shaped, resembling a trumpet. They are long and broad, with between five and seven slightly wrinkled petals (2) (3) (4) (6).

Height: up to 15 m (2)

Cordia biology

Cordia subcordata begins to flower when it is between three and five years old, and it produces fruits prolifically all year round. Each fruit contains one to four delicate, narrow white seeds. The rounded or egg-shaped fruits grow in clusters on the branches, and these hard and woody nuts drop to the ground when they mature (2) (3) (4). Cordia subcordata has an extensive, shallow root system which is adapted to sandy soils and drought (3).

On many islands throughout Polynesia, Cordia subcordata is planted in coastal regions as it makes an effective barrier against strong winds (3). The wood of Cordia subcordata is soft and durable, and is traditionally made into bowls or utensils, or used in crafts and carvings (3) (4) (7). It may also be used for light construction (4) and was historically used by Polynesian settlers to make strong, stable canoes (5). This tree is still favoured by many islanders for providing shade around their homes, while the brightly coloured flowers are used for making garlands of flowers, known as lei (7)


Cordia range

Cordia subcordata is a widespread tree which is found from east Africa, throughout Southeast Asia and the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans (1) (2) (3) (4) (6).


Cordia habitat

Cordia subcordata occurs in coastal areas, where it is fairly common in scrub and secondary forest thickets (1) (3) (4). It may also be found along the margins of mangrove forests (1) (3) and in breadfruit and coconut plantations (3). It is generally restricted to low elevations, from sea level to around 30 metres (3) (7)

This species typically grows on sandy, clay, or rocky limestone soils, and on lava headlands. Cordia subcordata is fairly salt tolerant and may be found on soils with high salinity (3).


Cordia status

Cordia subcordata is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Cordia threats

In the Papuasian region, the heavy exploitation of Cordia subcordata for native carvings and artifacts for the tourist trade has resulted in the rapid disappearance of many mature trees (1).

In some parts of it range, Cordia subcordata is highly susceptible to damage from the kou leaf worm (Ethmia nigroapicella) (3).


Cordia conservation

As this species is considered to be widespread throughout its native range, it is not currently of conservation concern. There are no known conservation measures that are targeted specifically at Cordia subcordata, but the the export of logs from this species is banned in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where its timber is highly valued (4).

ARKive is supported by OTEP, a joint programme of funding from the UK FCO and DFID which provides support to address priority environmental issues in the Overseas Territories, and Defra

Find out more

Find out more about Cordia subcordata:

  • Friday, J.B., and D. Okano. (2006). Cordia subcordata (kou). In: Elevitch, C.R. (Ed.) Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry. Permanent Agriculture Resources (PAR), Hōlualoa, Hawai‘i. Available at:

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Alternate leaves
Leaves that are located at alternating points along a stem, rather than in opposite pairs.
A plant which retains leaves all year round. This is in contrast to deciduous plants, which completely lose their leaves for part of the year.
The inner layers of wood in a tree that no longer contain living cells or produce sap. Heartwood tends to be darker in colour than the outer ‘sapwood’.
The living, soft wood between the bark of a tree and its inner, non-living heartwood. This outer layer of wood contains the sap and is generally lighter in colour than the heartwood.
Secondary forest
Forest that has re-grown after a major disturbance, such as fire or timber harvest, but has not yet reached the mature state of primary forest.


  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2011)
  2. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - Cordia subcordata (February, 2011)
  3. Friday, J.B., and D. Okano. (2006). Cordia subcordata (kou). In: Elevitch, C.R. (Ed.) Species Profiles for Pacific Island Agroforestry. Permanent Agriculture Resources (PAR), Hōlualoa, Hawai‘i.
  4. AgroForestryTree Database - Cordia subcordata (February, 2011)
  5. Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai`i - Cordia subcordata (February, 2011)
  6. Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants - Cordia subcordata (February, 2011)
  7. Hawaiian Ethnobotany Online Database (February, 2011)

Image credit

Cordia subcordata flower  
Cordia subcordata flower

© Shubhada Nikharge

Shubhada Nikharge


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