Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVI No. 05, June 16-30, 2016

Keystone tree par excellence

P.J. Sanjeeva Raj

The Flame of the Forest

The Flame of the Forest tree (Butea monosperma) is a native of the Indian subcontinent and of Southeast Asia. In English, it is also called, the Palas, the Parrot tree or the Bastard Teak tree. In Tamil, it is called the Purasai maram, in Telugu the Moduga or the Vasantha poo Chettu, in Kannada the Muthuga, in Malayalam the Plasu or Samata, and in Hindi the Palash. This tree is more common in North India than in the South and the Flame of the Forest flower is, understandably the state flower of Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. However, the Purasai tree is said to have flourished during the remote past in Purasaiwalkkam, a residential area in Chennai. In West Bengal the tree lent its name to Palashi town, now which the historical battle of Plassey was fought in 1757.

The tree can be called a keystone species since it attracts, apart from a few herbs, amazingly, about 40 species of birds, 15 species of insects, including all the four common species of honey bees of India, and about 10 species of mammals like monkeys and squirrels etc., to its flower petals and nectar. For human use, the tree provides honey, timber, fodder, fibre, leaves to make eating-plates, gum (resin), oil from seeds, dye from petals, and almost every part of the tree is of medicinal value. Above all, the tender twigs and branches of this tree are the rare hosts for the vanishing lac-insect of India.

The flowering of the Flame of the Forest in India (February to April), is a joyous harbinger of much-awaited Spring, after a long and dreary Winter.

Rabindranath Tagore, our Nobel Laureate, celebrated the annual Dol Purnami (Vasanth) Utsav, at Shanthiniketan by beckoning people to come out of their homes to enjoy the Spring. He says in Bengali,

“O people, break open the doors!
There is a Spring stir,
On soil, in water, in the forest,
There is a mad spring stir,
…………………….
Amongst the Ashoka and Palas flowers,
……………………..
Break open doors, open the doors!”

Several Indian festivals, chiefly the harvest festivals of farmers, are celebrated during Spring, with great fun and excitement. The most jubilant of them is the Holi festival of colours, when people use the flowers of the Flame of the Forest to prepare an orange decoction to spray on to others.

This tree is of educational value also since an “ecological succession” of beetles, honey bees, lizards, birds and mammals arrive on the tree, one by one, in tune with the phenology (life cycle) of the tree, ultimately establishing a symbiotic feeding re-establishing with the primates like the Rhesus monkeys and langurs feeding on petals at the top of the tree. Spotted deer and goats wait on the ground, below to feed on the crumbs of petals that the monkeys drop wantonly.

Why do these flowers of the Flame of the Forest attract, incredibly, 65 to 70 species of animals to them? Such a tree providing for the several needs of animals and humans deserves to be recognised as a “Kalpavriksha”, and should be propagated all over India.

Prof. P.J. Sanjeeva Raj
Consultant Ecologist (rajsanjeeva@gmail.com)

Comments

  1. Vijayalakshmi says:

    Very informative. The flame of the forest has always been my favorite tree, I am happy to learn of the diversity of life supported by this tree.

  2. CaptT. Rajkumar (Rtd ) says:

    Excellent paper , thanks

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