Anand Pendharkar: A golden carpet welcome

Indian laburnums are ideal trees for Mumbai City

I don’t enjoy Mumbai’s sweaty summers and since college days, I have found that to be the best excuse to escape to the Himalayan highlands. I almost literally seem to be following the winter migratory birds from my garden into their breeding grounds. The Hoopoes, wagtails, shrikes, Brahminy ducks and warblers all fly away into alpine lakes and meadows to feast on those early worms that temperate summers have to offer.

Laburnum flowers are golden honey pots for bees and butterflies
Laburnum flowers are golden honey pots for bees and butterflies

Unfortunately, during my college days, the only affordable transport to reach these lofty mountains was the second class sleeper coach of the Indian Railways. As you must’ve guessed, the onward and return journeys meant passing through scorching states. Surprisingly, they were utterly pretty and something to look forward to, just for the sheer endless stands of the golden chandeliers that were lining the Mumbai-Delhi, Pathankoth, Amritsar and Chandigarh routes.

These golden chandeliers were none other than the flowers of Amaltas or Indian Laburnum (Cassia fistula) trees, which are native to the Indian subcontinent and adjacent regions of Southeast Asia. Locally known as the Bahava, it is an ornamental avenue tree, sadly replaced by its garish relative from Madagascar, the Gulmohar. Also known as the Vishu Konnai in Malayalam, it is the state flower of Kerala and the national flower of Thailand. Interestingly, the Indian Postal Department has issued a R20 stamp to commemorate the tree.

The grape-like yellow gold inflorescence of Amaltas which begin to bloom in late April droop in elegant two feet clusters (racemes) surrounded by delicate, brownish leaves. These golden pearls are a summer food paradise and attract an immense number of butterflies and bees, who incidentally, also pollinate them. Thus, the tree is very useful in apiculture and should be planted in and around farms and fruit gardens. The two-three feet long pod is hard, but the 100-odd seeds are enclosed in a sweet pulp with laxative properties. Due to their weight and hardness, the pods and seeds fall right below the tree and cannot disperse without animal agents. In the forests, the sweet pulp attracts sloth bears and golden jackals who relish the seeds and drop them at faraway places.

Though laburnum trees grow barely 40 feet in height, the beauty of their dense flowering enamours most passersby and they make delightful avenue trees. Often planted as windbreaks or shade-trees, they have many other commercial uses. The wood is durable and used to make farming implements, house-posts, rice-pounders and shafts for bullock carts. In Ayurvedic medicine, the tree is known as Aragvadha, meaning ‘disease killer’. The root-bark has medicinal constituents which are used for treating skin diseases such as leprosy. Its fruit pulp is used against fevers, arthritis, nervous system diseases, haemorrhage, cardiac conditions and stomach problems , including acid reflux. It is also used to produce excellent quality charcoal and to extract tannins used in the leather industry.

As the Amaltas and Gulmohar trees flower during the same period, there is a constant debate between tree lovers over which is the better option for Mumbai. I personally find the flaming Gulmohar trees to be utterly useless for bees, birds, bats or any other animals. Besides, they are a nuisance and safety hazard, due to their weak wood, which breaks with the slightest winds, damaging walls, cars and even taking lives in some.

This monsoons, let’s plan to plant as many Indian Laburnums on our roads, in schools, housing colonies, hospitals and offices to get golden carpet welcomes in any street that the wind blows through.

Write in to Anand at sproutsenvttrust@gmail.com

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