The scarlet showstopper

Last Updated 21 April 2014, 18:38 IST

Gulmohar is widely loved for its aesthetic appeal and the history of these beautiful posies is an interesting tale in itself, says Janardhan Roye


It’s come a long way, this hardy survivor.

Native to Madagascar, it has journeyed way beyond borders, crossed several oceans, and now some 500 years later it has been spotted, with its roots in several distant lands. 
Everywhere, where the sun beats down harshly, it thrives and blooms and ecstatically enhances the soil and landscape. 
Known as delonix regia, caesalpiniaceae or gulmohar,it is an exceptionally striking and beautiful sight. Come summer, its colours splash every part of the country. 

Its canopy of dazzling green fern-like leaves interspersed with vivid red-orange-yellow blossoms stops people in their tracks. 

The spectacle continues even after the season, when blooms smile from leafless branches.

In the hi-tech city of Bangalore, where gardens seem like green carpets dotted with botanical divas, abundant flowering trees vie for attention.

The sheer abundance and the long-lasting good looks of gulmohar trees remain vibrant and prolific, so much so that when you ride past them, they appear as a blurry haze of red in the sunlight. 

Pretty flowers in the City

The gulmohar probably came to Bangalore as part of a programme where rulers cultivated ornamental and exotic plants from distant lands. 

It certainly got a huge leg up when Cubbon Park was created in 1870. Its impact on the Civil & Military station was immediate and dramatic. In one stroke, parks, bungalows, army areas, thoroughfares and boulevards such as Cubbon Road got dramatically painted red! 

Endangered in its native land, it flourishes elsewhere – in the tropics, sub-tropics offering cool shade to man and a pit-stop to avian and other creatures.

Gulmohar as we know of it today, once formed an expansive ‘scarlet forest’ in Madagascar. 

A group of distraught and weary Portuguese mariners sailing in a medieval century caravel happened on it by sheer chance.
The story goes that their ship, a part of a mighty armada that was thundering on its way to India, was blown off course by a terrible storm, somewhere off the southeast coast of Africa and lost links with their mother ship. 

Several days later, on August 10, 1500, the caravel exhausted of rations and bearing a tired and hungry crew.

The mariners stunned by the sight, made landfall and shortly thereafter entered the mainland. 

At close quarters, the scarlet forest was actually a series of orange and red flowered trees in the dry tropical mixed-wooded region, alive with the chatter and song of multi-hued winged birds. 

It was the first documented landing of a white man in the serene Madagascar.

The landing led to several scientific studies and discoveries. 

In time, the world would know that the scarlet forest hid many secrets of unique flora and fauna.

That it was ‘the promised land of the naturalist’ where dinosaurs occurred as fossils in the sedimentary rocks. 

The Portuguese sailors eventually  found fresh water and food. 

They shot and feasted on the first bird they saw, the lumpy dodo that tasted bad.
The stowaway animals in the ship including macaque monkeys escaped into the jungle.
 Over the years, the macaques multiplied and destroyed the dodo’s eggs. 

For the Portuguese seamen though, the scarlet trees were showstoppers – a riot of gorgeous orange-red blossoms. 

It is said that beauty is a key strategy for survival for the trees.

Beauty allows the trees to attract pollinators such as bees, birds and butterflies. 

Beauty also inspires charmed humans to carry their cuttings, saplings and seeds to their own lands. 

In addition to other visitors to the island, it was the untiring effort of the 19th century botanists that resulted in the wide spreading of the species. How the flowers arrived in India is unclear. 

Experts credit the Portuguese, the French and the English in their own way for bringing it from Mauritius, and planting it in different parts of India.
Irrespective of who did it, fact remains that gulmohar is alive and thriving in other parts of the world.
Ruthless destruction

With unplanned modernisation and man’s greed, came destruction that wrecked the pristine island’s delicate eco-system beyond repair and recognition. 

Starting with small tracts of forest land that were cleared for agriculture and coffee cropping, the machete-wielding went into overdrive.

Large-scale logging, mining, massive charcoal production, motorised vehicles, and other urban and myopic practices followed. 

By the 20th century, 85 percent of the woodland including the scarlet forest was denuded.  
An environmental assault ensued so severe that IUCN – the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has assessed the damage and is pleading for conservation of Madagascar’s endangered fauna and flora. 
In this unhappy process, Madagascar’s red-yellow flowering heritage survived not so much in the island as it did in other parts of the world where it is one of the most widely cultivated ornamental trees, gracing public landscapes and urban residential gardens.

With the onset of summer, its brilliant hues can be seen almost everywhere in the tropics. 

It is consistently rated as one of the most beautiful trees in the world. 

In the Caribbeans, it shines as royal poinciana.

The rural folk use the pods as fuel and call them ‘woman’s tongue’ because of the chattering sound made by the dry, long pods when the wind blows. 

In Bolivia, they are revered as Malinche, after a young Guarani woman of great beauty and brains persuaded a Spanish conquistador’s commandant to stop the massacre of her people.

It is so adored in Miami, Florida that a major annual festival celebrates its first signs of flowering. The city comes alive joyfully with parades, balloons, confetti, picnics, music and dancing. 
In full bloom or otherwise, the gulmohar is sure to take your breath away.
(Published 21 April 2014, 15:28 IST)

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