Column | From Madagascar to Kerala: The journey of 'Kaalvarippoo'

The bright orange-red flower of the Delonix regia tree is a common sight in a hot and humid Kerala that is eagerly awaiting the southwest monsoon. Poets, writers, artists and others who are not necessarily inclined to botany would assume that the Gulmohar tree, as it’s called in western India, has been a part of Kerala’s landscape since time immemorial. The tree, however, is not native to the Indian subcontinent, but traces its origin to the dry deciduous forests of the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar.

The orange-red flowers are now an integral part of a Kerala summer, but the tree only managed to find its way to the state in the 19th century. Residents of the tropics owe a great deal of gratitude to Wenzel Bojer, an Austrian naturalist, botanist and botanical illustrator, who discovered the Delonix regla in the forests of Madagascar in 1820. Bojer, a co-founder of the Royal Society of Arts Sciences, Mauritius, introduced the tree in Mauritius, from where it spread to different parts of the world. The tree was named Royal Poinciana after Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, a French nobleman who introduced it to the Americas.

Introduction in India

Gulmohar flowers give a different hue to Melattur railway station

It is widely believed that the Delonix regla was introduced in India around 1840 near Bombay (Mumbai). The tree’s first Indian name, Gulmohar, refers to the beauty of its flowers. Gul means flower in Persian, while mor, which got corrupted to mohar, means peacock. From Maharashtra the tree travelled far and wide across the subcontinent and made its way to Kerala.

The tree was named Kaalvarippoo, which literally means the flower of Calvary. Some Christians believe there was a Royal Poinciana tree near the cross of Jesus Christ, when he was crucified on Mount Calvary. The story goes that the blood of Christ was spread over the flowers and that’s how they managed to get that colour. Interestingly enough, the plant is known as the Krishnachura (crown in Krishna) in Bengal, Krishnachuda in Odisha and Krishnasura in Assam.

After it was introduced in Kerala, other uses were found for the tree. Its wood was used for bullock carts, and practitioners of Ayurveda also started exploring the medicinal properties of the tree and its flowers. Since Kaalvarippoo was first incorporated into the world of Ayurveda, plenty of scientific research has gone into exploring its medicinal properties.

“As per Ayurveda the Delonix regia tree balances vata (earth and air) and pitta
(fire and water), hence is widely used in Ayurvedic, Unani and in Homeopathic
medicines,” Shantha Sheela Nagarajan, Muthusamy Periyanna, and Radha
Ramalingam from the Department of Pharmacognosy of the Madras Medical
College, wrote in a research paper. “Delonix regia with an impressive range of medicinal and biological properties has been used in the folk medicine systems of several civilizations like for the treatment of constipation, inflammation, arthritis, hemiplegia, leucorrhoea and rheumatism.”
Ayurvedic practitioners believe the plant contains medicinal properties that could be used to treat bacterial infections and diabetes.
Two centuries after Wenzel Bojer discovered the tree that would beautify many a place in the tropics and sub-tropics, the Delonix regia has become endangered in its native Madagascar. Given how widespread the tree is around the world, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has put it on its least concern list.

The towering Kaalvarippoo tree with its beautiful flowers is something that binds many parts of the world together. Unlike foreign trees that have caused more harm than good in new habitats, such as the Eucalyptus and Acacia, the Delonix regia has blended in with local customs, culture, tradition and even folklore without causing irreparable damage to the existing ecosystem.

In 1920, American poet George Merrick wrote these verses in his poem (about Florida), The Royal Poinciana in Bloom, that could very well describe a corner of Kerala’s Palakkad district in May:

“Scarlet bloom of deepest dye,
That with the summer sunset vie
In flashful boast, thy thick-massed flame:—
Lo! Thou hast put its wealth to shame:
For all out-done, the tropic sun
Recalls his tint-skilled fays of fire,—
Glowing rich in envy as they fly.
The blood-red gleam of nonpareil
Amidst thy glare is hid so well
That none can know ‘tis bowered there
With scarlet flash of tanager;—
Nor,—faraway, in heat of day—
—A crimson stain against the green—”

When it rains in Kerala
Gulmohar trees drenched in the summer rain. Photo: Josekutty Panackal

(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island)

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