The Flamboyant Gulmohar

As kids in school we knew them simply as “May Flowers”. Bordering the playground fronting our school building were these unremarkable, nondescript trees that all at once burst into flames of scarlet splendour every summer vacation. In the peak summer heat of May (which didn’t seem to affect us too much back then anyway), we’d stand for brief respite in the shade of the Gulmohar trees, a carpet of fallen flowers at our feet, in anticipation of the ball being passed to us during our endless games of hockey or football or even aba dubi (a rather vicious variant of dodgeball, played with a tennis ball).

All over the city of Bombay, as the obstinate summer is cajoled away by the advancing monsoon, the streets are ablaze with the Gulmohar’s flamboyant flowers of scarlet and orange-red, with splashes of white and yellow in-between. A happy import from Madagascar, the Gulmohar never fails to brighten the demeanour of all whose gaze falls on its blossoming glory amidst the daily grind of dreary city life.

Gulmohar tree with pods and flowers

Delonix regia is its botanical name, and this deciduous tree is also known as the Flamboyant or the  Royal Poinciana (after French nobleman Phillippe de Poincy, himself a pretty flamboyant 17th century governor of St Kitts in the West Indies, credited with introducing the tree into the Americas).  Dissecting its botanical name reveals that Delonix is derived from the Greek words delos (evident) and onyx (meaning claw), suggesting the claw-like shape of the flower’s petals. In fact, mischievous youngsters tear apart the buds and place them over their nails to form creepy-looking extensions. The Indian name Gulmohar literally translates to Peacock Flower.

With a slender, straight trunk, shallow roots, fern-like leaves that spread into a shady canopy at a height of about 9-12 metres when full grown, the Gulmohar was first spotted by Bohemian botanist Wenceslas Bojer in Madagascar in the early 1820s. The Gulmohar in full bloom has vowed many a writer and poet, but perhaps none has expressed their thoughts on the strikingly beautiful blossoms more evocatively than Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India:

In Praise of Gulmohur Blossoms
WHAT can rival your lovely hue
O gorgeous boon of the spring?
The glimmering red of a bridal robe,
Rich red of a wild bird’s wing?
Or the mystic blaze of the gem that burns
On the brow of a serpent-king?
What can rival the valiant joy
Of your dazzling, fugitive sheen?
The limpid clouds of the lustrous dawn
That colour the ocean’s mien?
Or the blood that poured from a thousand breasts
To succour a Rajput queen?
What can rival the radiant pride
Of your frail, victorious fire?
The flame of hope or the flame of hate,
Quick flame of my heart’s desire?
Or the rapturous light that leaps to heaven
From a true wife’s funeral pyre?
- Sarojini Naidu

Royal Poinciana (Gulmohar) flower. Pic by Stephen Lea.

The Gulmohar flower has five large crinkly petals, four of which are scarlet or orange-red, with the fifth upright petal coloured white or yellow with streaks or dots of red. A naturally occurring variant of Delonix regia known as flavida has flowers that are completely yellow; this variety is rarely seen in Bombay. The bi-compound leaves are light green and about 30-50 cm long, with 20 to 40 pairs of primary leaflets (pinnae). Each pinna is further divided into 10-20 pairs of secondary leaflets (pinnules).

After the flowers are all shed, usually by the month of July, the elongated seed cases emerge, green and flaccid at first, and later turning hard and dark brown in colour during the winter months. Some time during February and March the Gulmohar sheds all its leaves, and is almost completely bare,  save for the hardened pods, which hang conspicuously until the new buds appear in April. The “shaka-shaka” sound produced by the dried seed cases when waved about is a favourite with children playfully passing by; indeed, these seed pods form the basis of the maraca, a percussion instrument common in the Caribbean islands.

The Gulmohar is mainly an ornamental tree, and grows quite easily without any special care, either from seeds or cuttings. The shallow root system results in the tree also easily falling when faced with the gusty winds accompanying the monsoon rains. While almost extinct in its native Madagascar, the Gulmohar is widespread in Bombay and other parts of India. Horticulturists recommend that the Gulmohar be planted some distance away from other plants and shrubs in gardens, as its superficial root system prevents anything else from growing in the space it occupies. Some ecologists frown upon the planting of these non-indigenous trees, stating that local birds are not attracted to them and never nest in them, nor do they feed on their fruit or nectar. I’m not qualified to make a judgement on this observation, but I would have thought that in the last 150 years or so since the Gulmohar made its appearance here, the local fauna would have adapted appropriately, what with all that soft wood and perfectly good nectar going abegging. Or maybe we could bring across some exotic birds as well from Madagascar, to nest happily in our plentiful Poincianas.

-  Val Souza

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