Seeing red: Beautiful Butea trees of Goa

These trees paint the town red, literally!
A Butea tree in bloom and butea flower (inset)
A Butea tree in bloom and butea flower (inset) Gomantak Times

We are just a few days short of India’s Republic Day, a day on which we celebrate the beginning of the life of our nation as a ‘Constitutional Democracy’. We are just past the Winter Solstice celebrations as Christmas and Makar Sankranti.

We also remember that on a Summer Solstice in 1757, the process of colonizing and enslavement of India had begun with the infamous ‘Battle of Plassey’.

A 'patravali'(traditional leaf plate) made of Butea leaf
A 'patravali'(traditional leaf plate) made of Butea leaf Gomantak Times

This battle was fought at Plassey, or Palashi, on June 23, 1757 and changed the power equations. The battleground was named after the Palash trees, Butea monosperma, or Flame of the Forest. Its flowers, now painting the hills red in Goa, are symbolic.

Palash trees flower from December to June. It is now in bloom in the hinterland of Goa and adjoining areas in the Konkan because we have warmer climate than Bengal and the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP).

A Butea tree in bloom and butea flower (inset)
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The trifoliate leaves have three large leaflets. Each of the leaflets is bigger than jackfruit or banyan tree leaves, which were used make the traditional Indian disposable plates, simply known as patravali.

A single leaflet of Butea is enough to serve sheera as prasad after a puja. Whether idli-vada or masala dosa, a single leaflet will suffice as a disposable plate. It is also used to wrap wild Termitomyces mushrooms in the hills and fish along the rivers.

A trifoliate Butea leaf
A trifoliate Butea leaf Gomantak Times

The Butea tree is deciduous and sheds its leaves in springtime. The flowers become increasingly prominent as the tree sheds its camouflage of leaves on the green hills. By the beginning of summer, the splash of red to orange flowers makes it look as if the forest is on fire. The sobriquet ‘Flame of the Forest’ is, but, natural. The leaf fall provides a natural mulch for the soil during the hot summers.

In a month from now, we will be celebrating Carnival, followed soon thereafter by Shigmo. The Palash flowers are used to produce the saffron colour powder for holi or shigmo. The tree originates and is found in natural abundance across the Indian sub-continent, specially the IGP from Pakistan to Bangladesh.

A Butea tree in bloom and butea flower (inset)
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Palash trees are also found throughout the former kingdom of the Chola kings across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. Whether it spread with the Chola empire of the eleventh to thirteenth century, or through traders impressed by the flowers, is not known.

In fact, we know very little about the Chola empire and India’s trade with the Far East that brought the Mando, Dodol and Ale bele to Goa. The Chola-inspired Angor Wat Temple, in Cambodia, is the world’s biggest religious shrine, glorious even as it stands in ruins. Indonesia boasts of huge statues of figures from the Mahabharat.

A Butea tree in bloom and butea flower (inset)
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The Butea tree is best grown on well-drained soil-rich organic matter. It needs full sunlight, but has to be protected from strong winds. In the state of Goa, which is returning to natural agriculture, the Butea tree survival can be a good indicator of the regeneration of the soil organic carbon content.

A beginning has been made by planting at St Xavier’s College, Mapusa; the Dr Francisco Luis Gomes garden in Campal, Panjim, and some other places where plants have grown into trees. It is a tree that needs an increased presence in the coastal talukas.

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