Few sights can lift a Mumbaikar’s spirit these days, especially given the summer heat, as much as the glimpse of a full-bloom Gulmohar from the window of a speeding train, or the spectacle of a road lined with Indian Laburnum. “They brighten our spirits in this weather,” says Isaac Kehimkar, a deputy director at the Bombay Natural History Society.
Originally from Madagascar, where it is now almost extinct, the Gulmohar has a slender trunk and shallow roots, and can reach a height of 9-12 metres. But naturally, much of the attention is on its flowers. Five large, spade-like petals emerge from a star-shaped centre. While four of them are the same shade of crimson, the fifth petal appears to stand out, with its streaks of white, and upright. No colour can compare to the blossoms of a Gulmohar tree (Delonix regia). Sarojini Naidu made a valiant attempt in her poem, In Praise of Gulmohur Blossoms — “the glimmering red of a bridal robe/ The rich red of a wild bird’s wing?/ Or the mystic blaze of a gem that burns/ On the brow of a serpent king?”. She asks, “What can rival the radiant pride/ Of your frail, victorious fire?”
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When the Gulmohar has shed all its flowers, usually by July, long green seed cases emerge from the branches. Schoolchildren would in the past eagerly await colder months, when the pods become brown and hard, and they could rattle the encased seeds endlessly. While the tree sheds all its leaves in February and stands naked until spring, the pods cling on until April.
The Indian Laburnum, Mumbai’s other favourite, is also, appropriately, called the Golden Shower Tree (Cassia fistula). Although showy, it is beautiful on the inside as well. “Its leaves, bark and fruit are all used to cure a variety of ailments,” says Kehimkar.
In Ayurveda, it is known as aragvadha, or disease-killer.
The tree, which can grow up to a height of 20 metres, boasts flowers that hang in bright, yellow cascades, blooming in such profusion that often it is difficult to glimpse the green leaves.
In the days leading up to the festival of Vishu, celebrated by Malayalees, the trees are often stripped bare of their flowers. Enthusiastic Keralites then make a beeline in the morning to pluck flowers which are then placed in a large pot, along with other auspicious items such as a gold ornaments, coins in a silver cup, new cloth and two halves of a coconut. All these are then placed before an idol of Lord Krishna as it is believed the offering brings good luck for the rest of the year.
Both trees are deciduous, which means they flower or fruit seasonally. Kehimkar says, “They are popular almost everywhere in India because they look so nice and are easy to grow. The hotter it is, the better for them.”
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