Till a month back ,I knew more about Rafales and Migs than I was aware of the flowers and trees in my neighbourhood. Regarding my lack of exposure,suffice is to say that I mistook a RUDRAPALASH flower for a Hibiscus when one of the former fell upon me . I looked up to countenance scores of branches burdened with bunches of deep saffron. Its only later that i realised that Spathodea campanulata (Rudrapalash) are ubiquitous in Kolkata.
Now I am not blind,and its not that I have had an aversion to flora around me,but somehow I never got properly introduced to plants and trees . It is just that an opportunity had never presented itself earlier to raise that kind of inclination inside me . I had seen Hibiscus being presented as ritual offerings in Devi temples ,and realised that the orange flower in my hand didn’t have a prominent pistil protruding out of it . A passerby caught my quizzing expressions ,and helpfully quipped “ If RUDRAPALASH themselves welcome you , spring must have arrived and you must either be a poet or a romantic,or both ! ”
They are commonly known as Nandi flame,African Tulip tree,Pichkari or fountain tree.The flower bud is ampule-shaped and contains water. These buds are often used by children who play with its ability to squirt the water. The sap sometimes stains yellow on fingers and clothes. The open flowers are cup-shaped and hold rain and dew, making them attractive to many species of birds.
ALso widely prevalent across Bengal are the Palash or Butea monosperma tree(pic below).
Further enquiries enlightened me about how these ‘flames of the forest’ used to send Tagore into raptures . Palash cover the whole of Shantiniketan and students play Holi with these blossoms . Plassey,the site of Indian shame, derives its name from Palash. The botanical name is Butea monosperma ,and it is also referred to as dhak, kinshuka and bastard teak . Jayadev in his Geet Govind refers to Palash as Kamadev’s nails with which he wounds the hearts of lovers. The flower is used to prepare dye to be used as Holi colour.The leaves are rather leathery and not consumed by cattle.Its wood is used as timber ,as ‘samidhas’ and also in making ladles to pour sacrificial ghee into the havan fires. Palash are the state flower of Jharkhand.
(above two pics- RUDRAPALASH)
Over the last one month I have realised that in the Calcutta of Spring , RUDRAPALASH is ubiquitous .The trees are laden with flowers in such profusion that roads become orange-red in the mornings before the fallen ones are swept away. Thousands of palash flowers can be seen floating pools of water after kalbaisakhi showers hit the city .
I had not even walked ten further steps ,when I stumbled upon a huge bright red flower. “Definitely not hibiscus.The long pistil is absent ”, I muttered.Then what was it ? I posted its pictures on Facebook ,alongside a capsule’s and its black teeth (also lying on the road nearby ) . SEMUL or Silk-cotton (Shimul in Bangla) was the online verdict for the flower,but there was some confusion regarding the capsule.
KURRAJONG TREE & Its Capsule
Simul ,botanically Bombax ceiba, is very popular in Southern China and South Asia .Infact it is the official flower of Guangzhou.The bark of this tall tree has spikes.The timber is soft,and used for making matchsticks .The tree doesnt hold itself back while flowering.The red colours are unabashedly showy, flower is unusually large and there are hundreds of them when there is bloom.
I realised later that the sinister-looking capsule and its black teeth have nothing to do with Semul,but belonged to the Kurrajong tree (Brachychiton populaneus).(PICS ABOVE).There are numerous such trees in Salt Lake and Robindro Sarobar.
There were no pods or fruits visible on that SEMUL tree then,just flowers. But some days later , I came across some trees whose fruits looked as if a plethora of ‘GREEN BULL BALLS ’ had been suspended from its branches .These were the semul silk-cotton pods ,and they contained the useful filament within them. Semuls are quite easy to spot throughout the Salt Lake locality,and together with Palash are the harbingers of spring in Bengal .
A few mornings later ,hardly fifty paces from my flat ,I was pleasantly shocked into a
wide-eyed moment, as I found myself facing the most ecstaticly bright-yellowish bloom I could have ever imagined in my most psychaedelic state . I had seen yellow mustard plants in my village fields,but this was an altogether otherwordly experience ! The ground below was covered with a thick yellow layer of dropped petals .
This couldn’t be Amaltas.Somehow I was sure of that.I did what I know best.I googled.
It turned out to be GOLDEN TRUMPET ,botanically Allamanda cathartica,native of Brazil.Flowers occur in the form of clusters.Humming birds have some special soft corner for these yellow flowers,although i could not spot even one .Apparently they are not found in India,but i did spot a couple of similar nectar-sucking Sunbirds.
Pink and White trumpets ended up blooming in Salt Lake some days later. I had not spotted Kachnar until then,and when I first found Pink Trumpets, I mistook them for Orchids(Kachnars) or Mountain ebony.It took some further research to identify them properly.But boy,what a site they were to behold.
ROSY TRUMPETS ,are botanically Tabebuia rosea,and are planted throughout Salt Lake and New Town localities of Calcutta for landscaping purposes. The species isn’t the same as the cherry blossom found in Japan, where it is known as Sakura and celebrated as a national flower. The regular cherry blossom tree belongs to the Prunus family while the species that adorns part of the township is from the Bignoniaceae family.But what a glorious bloom they are !
WHITE TRUMPETS,are botanically Tabebuia roseoalba.They represent purity and grace as compared with Pink’s unabashed beauty and Yellow trumpet’s bold exhibition of joy.
In the following days ,I also managed to spot Kaner – yellow ,white and red-pink, and pink-white Champa,in my vicinity. I initially misidentified yellow kaner as Golden trumpets (which I had by then discovered),and Frangipanis(Champa) as Chameli (Jasmine).But by then, I sort of knew, how to identify them correctly after a series of hits and trials.
Yellow KANER is botanically Cascabela thevetia,a relative of oleanders.It is offered in rituals associated with Shiva’s worship . All parts of the plant and its flower are poisonous as they contain cardiac glycosides. Red – pink kaner is Nerium oleander and is also widely prevalent in Salt lake.I even spotted a beautiful white as well as an orange specimen today morning.
CHAMPA or FRANGIPANI is botanically called Plumeria rubra . It is known as temple tree,and used in making flower necklaces and in coffin decorations.It was named Frangipani after an Italian noble family which invented scented perfume. Flowers have white petals with beautiful pink shades on the edges and yellow in the centre.The flowers bloom in clusters and have a sweet fragrance.Plumerias are indigenous to Mexico and Central America.
BOUGANVILLA are found almost everywhere in the country .These evergreen ornamental wines ,with prickly thorns are native to South America.In Salt Lake,I could spot magenta,white,pink and orange bouganvillas.They are referred to as Kagaz Phool in Bengal owing to the paper thin texture of their brachts of various colours which surround the actual flower which is generally white .
Another very commonplace happy-go-lucky shrub is NAYANTARA ,botanically Catharathus roseus.It grows without a damn care in the world.It is also called SADAFULI , Sadabahaar or Old Maid or Rose PERIWINKLE ,and is a native of Madagascar.White and pink varieties are commonly visible in Salt Lake.They have ornamental as well as medicinal uses.Nayantaras are also used as offerings to God.
ASHOKA or Sita Ashoka trees are also in full bloom .What I used to consider as Ashoka trees, turned out to be false ones (Polyalthia longifolia).
FALSE ASHOKA SITA ASHOKA /Saraca asoca
But it is after these Saraca asoca (on the right) that Ravana’s Ashok Vatika was named .Buddha was born under an Ashoka tree in Lumbini. Beautiful orange-yellow flowers finally mature into red bloom .Leaves are deep green in colour and foliage is quite thick.The tree holds enormous cultural significance in the subcontinent.These trees are also associated with Yakshinis and their dance postures.The ASHOKA flower is one of the five (other being White and Blue Lotus,Jasmine and mango) arrows in Kamadeva’s quiver.
RED GOLMOHURS (Delonix regia) generally begin to bloom from April onwards .But I noticed that some flowering has already begun by second week of March itself.KRISHNACHURA ,or FLAME tree or FLAMBOYANT or Royal POINCIANA ,as they are also referred have fern-like leaves on large deciduous barks .The flowers are large,having four red petals.The leaves are quite long having numerous primary and secondary leaflets. There are a large number of Red and Yellow Gulmohars in Salt Lake and one would expect the locality to be fully covered with them between April and June.
Then there is RADHACHURA ,the bright YELLOW Gulmohar,also called as Yellow Flame.Botanically called as Peltophorum pterocarpum ,they usually bloom between June and August ,but I have noticed some trees are bearing few flowers in March as well.
Shelley once wrote ‘If winter comes,can spring can be far behind ?”. Residents of Calcutta often wonder if winters even arrive ? We catch their brief glimpse , and they leave behind long springs to overcompensate. Calcutta exhibits its joy in spring through various colourful flowering trees as mentioned above. Amaltash,Gulmohars and Jerul are waiting in the wings for summers to knock. Salt Lake will not run out of colours . But it would be wonderful if more residents took out time to stroll through its lanes and bylanes ,and enjoy the bounty of nature.
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