Flaming Muse: Butea Monosperma

palash tree feb 2014

Butea monosperma photographed by Gupreet Singh Ranchi in February 2014, Jharkhand, India

I was disproportionately overjoyed when I stumbled upon Butea monosperma, a gorgeous tree which in India seems to embody the idea that the plants that grow naturally in the immediate locale should be used and revered where they grow, often to celebrate and facilitate necessities and local custom. Butea monosperma is not only emblematic of two important Indian regions – Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand – but is, both spiritually and in a practical sense, completely interwoven with the routines and rituals of daily life.

Preparation of Bankh rope from the roots of Butea monosperma, used for restraining cattle

Preparation of Bankh rope from the roots of Butea monosperma. The finished rope is used for restraining cattle

Butea monosperma is a flaming, beauteous beacon of floriferous ornament, as well as boasting numerous utilities and an entire pharmacopia of medicinal applications – among which (unromantically) is a hemorrhoid preparation made from the fruit. Fortunately, and in favour of romance, some of her common names are highly evocative; the most notable being ‘Flame of the Forest’. She is also known regionally as Palash and Dhak¹, and is, perhaps bizarrely, named after John Stuart – the third Earl of Bute, and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1762 until 1763.

John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute and namesake of Butea monosperma

John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute and namesake of Butea monosperma. Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, (National Portrait Gallery)

So even her taxonomy is intertwined with the fascinating history of the British Empire and India’s shackled relationship with it. John Stuart (1712-1792) famously negotiated the end of the Seven Year’s War with France and her allies in 1754:

‘The French and British East India Companies and their respective Indian allies were at war with each other.  The East India Company led by Robert Clive defeat the French ally, Siraj Ud Daulah, at the battle of Plassey ending the rule of the last independent Nawab of Bengal.  This is judged to be one of the pivotal events leading to the formation of the British Empire in South Asia.  The resulting central administration and governance starts a process that leads eventually to the formation of unified India’.

Excerpt from http://www.theeastindiacompany.com/index.php/24/timeline/. Read more about the incredible history of the East India Company and the formation of the British Empire using the link above. Also see BBC 2’s current exploration of the birth of empire through the lens of the East India Company:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b042w0xt/The_Birth_of_Empire_The_East_India_Company_Episode_1/

The Third Earl of Bute’s time in office was notoriously short. He was much maligned – or even hated – in Parliament, until his resignation after only 11 months. He was also a Scotsman, which may or may not have been an advantage in Parliament at the time. (Speculation suggests the latter).

Unlike the poor old third Earl of Bute (luckily for Butea) she is much loved, and still employed in countless capacities. Our ‘Flame of the Forest’ also goes by the moniker ‘Bastard Teak’, (presumably partly because she never rots of succumbs to the unpleasantries of podiatric fungi).The wood is so hard and resistant to rot that countless tools and implements are made from it². In a country where monsoon conditions can cause persistent problems with mould and rot during the rainy season, this must be invaluable.

Maybe we could introduce her to Hebden Bridge? The good folk of t’Bridge could certainly do with a top-class rot-proof hardwood to make their famous clogs, ‘worn by Yorkshire folk long before industry and machinery invaded that county of broad acres’, as it’s monsoon conditions year-round in the Calder Valley. However, it is sub-arctic as well, so it may not be a match made in heaven. Incidentally, I had a Saturday job at Walkley’s clog factory in Hebden Bridge when I was 16.

http://www.clogs.co.uk/visit%20the%20clog%20factory.htm

Harry Hargreaves of Dean, Smith & Grace, Bingley. Harry went to Buckingham Palace in 1943 to receive a British Empire medal (presumably for his wartime role as clogmaker extraordinaire)

Harry Hargreaves of Dean, Smith & Grace, Bingley. Harry went to Buckingham Palace in 1943 to receive a British Empire medal from the Queen (presumably for his wartime role as clogmaker extraordinaire)

Photograph from the Imperial War Museum archive collection:

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205199951

Because of Butea monosperma’s resistance to rot and entropy, her wood is routinely used for water-bearing vessels and appliances, drainage and pipework. Butea wood is noteworthy for being used to make well curbs and water scoops, and deteriorates incredibly slowly. So yes, perfect for Yorkshire.

The flowers are crushed and used to make dyes³ for religious festivals such as the festival of colours (Holi),  interior paint and even has a role in funerary rituals. Where mourners have no incarnation of the deceased but are assured that their loved one is dead, a piece of Butea wood is substituted and cremated in place of a body. The tree itself is also associated with the Hindu fire god, Agni¹.

Butea

Fallen Butea blooms

The traditionally English name of ‘Parrot Tree’ refers to Butea monosperma’s beautiful beak-like red flowers, emanating from massed stalks with dark green cup-like calices. Myriad ‘beaks’ radiate from the mass of stalks, conjuring up visions of gruesome pirates angrily dismembering their noisy avian familiars, debeaking poor old Polly and chums in a bloodthirsty and merciless frenzy. (Or perhaps that’s just my riotous and slightly ridiculous imagination running wild).

Continuing along the avian theme, Butea is an ugly duckling. Gangly and awkward in December and January when the tree is denuded of leaves and flowers, the gnarled silvery-grey bark only accentuates what is essentially an ungainly form. Messy and unfocused, the limbs grow in all directions and with a distinct lack of elegance. This phase is thankfully short. As the flowers crowning the upper canopy of the tree start to appear in February and March, the apex of each tree seen en masse clearly justify the name ‘Flame of the Forest’, creating the illusion of waves of flame.

Butea monosperma is native to tropical and subtropical regions – more specifically parts of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. She belongs to the Leguminosae family, or Papilionideae. Other genera within the family include Acacia, Cercis (and a tropical vine wildly and rudely named Clitoria). According to http://www.theplantlist.org/ there are literally hundreds of other noteworthy friends and relations, too.

Butea monosperma is not only a beautiful tree, but provides seemingly endless resources for the people who are lucky enough to live alongside it. I have only touched on some of the uses of this versatile plant and, in particular, the medicinal applications merit significantly more detailed investigation. I hope to collaborate further on this subject with scientists and botanists in the near future.

 

Art Spot

Butea monosperma inspires artists, too:

Ramachandran: http://www.artoframachandran.com/node/178

Ranjani Shettar: http://talwargallery.com/ranjaniflame-pr/

 

Track of the Week

Light my Fire, The Doors https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb5uJ4b78Q0

 

Book of the Week

The Strangler Vine, M.J Carter. A book about the oppressive and conflicting dilemmas of the Sepoys and the British military in India during the height of the East India Company’s powers. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-review-the-strangler-vine-by-mj-carter-9102257.html

 

Notes

A collective representing small-scale forest farmers and co-operatives in Rajasthan, India, is harvesting natural products and promoting the understanding of their native forest plants (including Butea monosperma) through carefully controlled, sustainable trade: http://www.samarthak.org/?page_id=46

‘The Rajasthan Forest Produce Processing Group Support Society ( Samarthak Samiti ) is a registered organization (under Act 1956), which is active in six districts of the state with the broad objective of providing guidance and motivation to smaller organizations, cooperative societies and such other societies, which are engaged with minor forest produce collection and devoted to the cause of biodiversity conservation’

Other relevant links:

Indian trees: http://www.outreachecology.com/landmark/category/botany/fabaceae/butea-monosperma/

Graphic illustration of Butea monosperma: http://salliesart.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/butea-monosperma.html

On Gardening in India: http://www.cityfarmer.org/indiagarden.html

Other articles on Butea monosperma: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/when-satpura-blushes

Sources

¹On Etymology, colloquialisms, general usage, medicinal applications, customs and ritual uses of Butea monosperma, Vinay Ranjam’s plant survey document for the Central National Herbarium, (Howrah) has been indispensible:

http://bsienvis.nic.in/writereaddata/Jharkhand%20State%20Flower%20_Final__3_11.pdf

²Applications & uses from references kindly recommended by Indian Botanists via

http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/565/1/IJTK%207%281%29%20%282008%29%2011-22.pdf

³On natural dye:

http://www.deepdyve.com/lp/elsevier/extraction-of-natural-dye-from-petals-of-flame-of-forest-butea-HZliXrsXfm

General information on indigenous uses of Butea monosperma:

http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1664&context=ebl

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