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Premna serratifolia (malbau)

Malbau is a common beach plant from southeast Asia and the Pacific. The crushed leaves smell of cat's urine.

Premna serratifolia (Image: Rogier de Kok)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Premna serratifolia L.

Common name: 

malbau (Malay language), headache tree

Conservation status: 

Rated by IUCN as of Least Concern (LC).


Open vegetation along coasts and rivers.

Key Uses: 

Edible leaves; leaves, roots and bark used in traditional medicine; used for hedges and as a street tree.

Known hazards: 

None known.


Genus: Premna

About this species

Premna serratifolia was named by the Swedish botanist and 'father of taxonomy' Carl Linnaeus in 1771, in the publication Mantissa Plantarum Altera. The leaves of the type specimen (the specimen used by Linnaeus for his description) are somewhat serrated, and hence explain the choice of the specific epithet serratifolia for a species that generally has smooth-edged leaves. There are about 50 species in the genus Premna. This particular species is also encountered in the literature as Premna integrifolia.


Premna integrifolia


Discover more

Geography & Distribution

Premna serratifolia is widely distributed along the coasts and islands of tropical and subtropical Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific.


Premna serratifolia (Image: Rogier de Kok)

Malbau is a shrub or small tree, sometimes creeping along the ground, and growing 1-10 m tall. It has green to brown bark which is smooth or scaly. The leaves are held opposite each other on the stem, and are 4-20 cm long and 3-16 cm wide. The leaf margins are smooth (or rarely serrated) and hairless, and the crushed leaves smell of cat's urine. The white flowers have five corolla lobes. The fruits are more-or-less spherical, 3-8 mm long, 3-5 mm wide, hairless, and black or dark red when mature.

Threats & Conservation

Premna serratifolia is not considered to be threatened.


In Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia, the young leaves are boiled and eaten as a vegetable. In various parts of Indonesia, an infusion of the leaves and roots is used against fevers and shortness of breath; women also eat the leaves in order to promote breast-milk production. In Indo-China, the leaves and roots are used in traditional medicine as a diuretic, stomachic and febrifuge. On Guam, in the Pacific Ocean, a tea made from the boiled bark is used to treat neuralgia. Premna serratifolia is one of several herbal ingredients of “Dasamula” (or “Dashamula”) used in the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine.

Premna serratifolia contains alkaloids, iridoid glycosides and several diterpenoids. Recent laboratory research has been undertaken into the possible cardiac stimulant activity of bark and wood extracts.

Premna serratifolia can be propagated easily from cuttings, and hence it is used for hedges and as a street tree.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 1.53 g.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank:
Germination testing: Unsuccessful


Malbau is not cultivated at Kew, but is known to be in cultivation elsewhere in the world, for example as a shade tree.

Malbau at Kew

Pressed and dried specimens of Premna serratifolia are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. The details of some of these can be seen in the on-line Herbarium Catalogue. Samples of bark, root and a carved wooden elephant are held in the Economic Botany Collection.

References and credits

References and credits

Cardenas, L.B. (1999). Premna serratifolia L. In de Padua, L.S., Bunyapraphatsara, N. & Lemmens, R.H.M.J. (eds), Plant Resources of South-East Asia No. 12 (1). Medicinal and Poisonous Plants 1. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, the Netherlands. Pp. 416-417.

de Kok, R.P.J. (in press). The genus Premna L. in the Flora Malesiana area. Kew Bulletin.

Rajendran, R.. Suseela, L., Sundaram, R.M. & Basha, N.S. (2008). Cardiac stimulant activity of bark and wood of Premna serratifolia. Bangladesh Journal of Pharmacology 3 (2): 107-113.

Kew Science Editor: Rogier de Kok
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. Full website terms and conditions.

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