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Butea Monosperma is a species of Butea native to tropical and sub-tropical parts of the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, ranging across India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and western Indonesia. Common names include flame-of-the-forest and bastard teak.
It is a small-sized dry-season deciduous tree, growing to 15 m (49 ft)tall. It is a slow-growing tree: young trees have a growth rate of a few feet per year. The leaves are pinnate, with an 8–16 cm (3.1–6.3 in) petiole and three leaflets, each leaflet 10–20 cm (3.9–7.9 in) long. The flowers are 2.5 cm (0.98 in) long, bright orange-red, and produced in racemes up to 15 cm (5.9 in) long. The fruit is a pod 15–20 cm (5.9–7.9 in) long and 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) broad.
In West Bengal, it is associated with spring, especially through the poems and songs of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who likened its bright orange flame-like flower to fire. In Santiniketan, where Tagore lived, this flower has become an indispensable part of the celebration of spring. The plant has lent its name to the town of Palashi, famous for the historic Battle of Plassey fought there.
In the state of Jharkhand, palash is associated with folk tradition. Many folk literary expressions describe palash as the forest fire. The beauty of dry deciduous forests of Jharkhand reach their height when most trees have shed their leaves and the Palash is in its full bloom. Palash is also the State Flower of Jharkhand.
It is said that the tree is a form of Agni, the God of fire and war. In Telangana, these flowers are specially used in the worship of Lord Shiva on occasion of Shivaratri. In Telugu, this tree is called Modugu chettu.
In Kerala, this is called plasu and chamata and vishalnarayan'. Chamata is the vernacular version of Sanskrit word harinee, small piece of wood that is used for agnihotra or the fire ritual. In most of the old namboodiri (Kerala Brahmin) houses, one can find this tree because this is widely used for their fire ritual. Tamil Brahmins have a daily agnihotra ritual called Samidha Dhanan, where barks of this tree is a main component for agnihotra, and this ritual is very essential for brahmacharis during the first year of brahmacharya.
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Historically, dhak forests covered much of the doab area between the Ganges and the Yamuna, but these were cleared for agriculture in the early 19th century as the English East India Company increased tax demands on the peasants.
It is used for timber, resin, fodder, medicine, and dye. The wood is dirty white and soft. Being durable under water, it is used for well-curbs and water scoops. Spoons and ladles made of this tree are used in various Hindu rituals to pour ghee (clarified butter) into the fire. Good charcoal can be obtained from it. The leaves are usually very leathery and not eaten by cattle. The leaves were used by earlier generations of people to serve food instead of plastic plates.
Usage in leather
The gum from the tree, called kamarkas in Hindi, is used in certain food dishes.
In villages of many parts of India, for example in Maharashtra, this tree provides leaves that are used either with many pieced together or singly (only in case of a banana leaf) to make a leaf-plate for serving a meal. Up until a century ago, a would-be son-in-law was tested on his dexterity in making this plate and bowl (used to serve daal, gravy dishes) before being declared acceptable by the father-in-law-to-be.
The flowers are used to prepare a traditional Holi colour. It is also used as a dye for fabric.
This tree has been used in Punjabi literature extensively. The Punjabi poet Harinder Singh Mahboob has used it as a symbol in his poetry.
In Rudyard Kipling's short story Beyond the Pale (contained in Plain Tales from the Hills, published in 1888), he says of the dhak: The flower of the dhak means diversely "desire", "come", "write", or "danger", according to the other things with it. The tree was also featured in The Jungle Book in the story Tiger! Tiger! as the tree Mowgli instructs his wolf-brother Grey Brother to wait under for a signal that Shere Khan has returned.
The first sloka of the Sukla Yajurveda speaks about the Palasa tree. The Palasa tree branch is cut and trimmed by the Adhvaryu priest who performed the practical part of sacrifice, the day before a new moon or a full moon, and used it to drive the calves away from cows whose milk was to form a part of the offerings for the next day's special ceremony.
Flame of the Forest is otherwise known as Bastard Teak, Parrot Tree (Eng.), Chichra tesu, desuka jhad, dhaak, palaash, chalcha, kankrei (Hindi), PaLash (पळस) (Marathi), Kesudo (કેસુુડો) (Gujarati) Palashpapra (Urdu), Muthuga (ಮುತ್ತುಗ) (Kannada.), Kinshuk, Polash (পলাশ) Bengali, Pauk (Burmese), Polash (Polax) in Assamese, Porasum, Parasu (Tam.), Muriku, Shamata (Mal.), Modugu(మోదుగ) (Telugu), Khakda (Guj.), Kela (Sinh.), Ploso (Javanese), Palash (Odia), Semarkat Api (Malay).
In Sanskrit, the flower is extensively used as a symbol of the arrival of spring and the colour of love. Jayadeva in the Gita Govindam compares these blossoms to the red nails of Kamadeva or Cupid, with which he wounds the hearts of lovers. The imagery is all the more appropriate as the blossoms are compared to a net of kimsuka flowers (किंशुकजाले). In a completely leafless tree, the blossoms look like a net.
The following stanza is translated here by Barbara Stoller Miller, for Kimsuka blossoms, she uses the common name "flame tree petals":
- Tamala tree's fresh leaves absorb strong scent of deer musk.
- Flame tree petals, shining nails of love, tear at young hearts.
- Gita Govinda of Jayadeva, Love Song of the Dark Lord, Motilal Banarsidass
- "Butea monosperma". Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Agricultural Research Service (ARS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- Huxley, A., ed. (1992). New RHS Dictionary of Gardening. Macmillan ISBN 0-333-47494-5.
- Mann, Michael, Ecological Change in North India: Deforestation and Agrarian Distress in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab 1800–1850, in "Nature and the Orient" edited by Grove, Damodaran and Sangwan
- Cowen, D. V. (1984). Flowering Trees and Shrubs in India, Sixth Edition. Bombay: THACKER and Co. Ltd. p. 3.
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