An intimate encounter with the lovely Red Cassia

The brilliant brick reds, salmon-pink and yellow of Cassias light up avenues even as summer wears out its welcome. Sahastrarashmi presents an intimate encounter with the flowering tree as never experienced before

Studio portrait of Red Cassia – the yellow (possibly hybrid) variation
Studio portrait of Red Cassia – the brick-red flowers are interspersed with pink, but from a distance overshadow other shades

The seemingly endless tropical summer tends to linger a bit longer on the eastern coast down south where I live. It’s an extended goodbye, a season that begins to grudgingly allow the relief of a few cool days in an otherwise hot and sultry clasp that stretches on for six interminable months and threatens to last forever. Life runs along in slow motion and all movement requires the extra effort needed to cut through the thick blanket of heat, and is hence discouraged. Few are brave enough to put up a show and among those who do – Cassias win hands-down.

Red Cassia canopy at peak bloom – extreme top canopy
The Java Cassias (Cassia javanica) are the first to erupt in a rapturous frenzy of pink and white, followed by the pendulous clusters of bright-yellow laburnums (Cassia fistula) and as they begin to give in to the onslaught of the unsparing summer, the Red Cassias (Cassia roxburghii) explode. They see the summer out.
The terracotta-red bunch — this colour defines the Red Cassia
You can be so struck by their resilience that you risk ignoring their astonishing beauty. The mid-sized, mimosa-leaved trees with long drooping branches and shiny green leaves betray hints of a few buds in mid-May. By mid-June the big brick-red clusters are conspicuous and by the end of the month most trees are in full bloom.
A pink cluster from a flowering Red Cassia
The overall aspect of the flower clusters is brick-red and, on closer view, you cannot but notice the fine green veins on the papery petals. The clusters are in reality quite variegated and one of the most stunning features of the flowers are the hues you can find in a single bunch. There is soft-pink, deep-pink, pink with a hint of yellow, brick-red with shades of yellow, terracotta-red, bright yellow and faded white. The clusters can vary in the mix and pink clusters can be seen along with terracotta-red ones. You soon realize that the terracotta red (described as the primary colour by both Pradip Krishen and earlier by Blatter and Millard) is mainly what the eye sees from a distance, a property of the red wavelength, while the profusion of shades is visible only up-close.
While the clusters appear terracotta red from a distance, the flowers sport a profusion of hues

 

Three clusters – Pink and Yellow, Brick Red, and Pink. The last two are from the same tree.
Flower clusters from a possible hybrid – the clusters are yellow and pink and not terracotta-red – late July
An intriguing property of Cassias is that they hybridize easily and this may be the reason for even more variation. Just next to the handsome specimen with terracotta-red clusters is a variant where yellow flowers predominate with some white and pink – there are barely hints of darker shades (sSee pic of the three bunches above). This can make identification difficult but keep in mind that the other common Cassia, the Java Cassias, are almost always in shades of pink (no yellow or brick red) and the flowers are not only in clusters (towards the end of the flowering season) but cover the branches along the length (see below). The less common Burmese Pink Cassia is also deep-pink in color and the Cassia marginata (common in Mysore) has red flowers but lacks the large bunches as in Cassia roxburghii.
Java Cassia flowers cover the branches along its length.

 

Cassia marginata flowers (from Lalbagh, Bangalore). Notice the three longer red stamens with maroon anthers. This Cassia is quite common in Mysore
A flowering branch – mid-June
The flower is five-petaled, diminutive with salmon-pink sepals. Each flower has ten light yellow stamens, each with bright red anthers. There are three long stamens, curved inwards but unlike those of Java Cassia are not swollen in the middle. The rest of the stamens are smaller.
Red Cassia stamens have no swelling. The calyx is salmon pink.
Cassia javanica flower. Notice the yellow stamens with the swelling on the three longer ones.
Blatter and Millard trace the tree as a native of Ceylon and mention that it was introduced in India in 1802 (Royal Botanic Gardens in Calcutta now called the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden). Pradip Krishen suggests that the tree may also be native to South India.
Flowers from a roadside tree
Red Cassia in Pondicherry – late July

 

A view at mid-height — the flowers are interspersed in foliage. The upper canopy tends to have less foliage while at the peak of flowering.

As I write, the Laburnums are a mere shadow of their once exuberant blooms. Slow brown death is creeping into Java Cassias. The flaming red crowns of most Gulmohars have returned to a verdant green, and the yellow shower of Copper Pods is spent. But the Red Cassias are holding on at their peak. In their limitless palette of colours and fiery blooms, the intense tropical summer finally seems to have met its match.

The petals, up close
Smitten with flowering trees? Don’t forget to read our richly illustrated posts on the Copper Pod, the Gulmohar and the explosive beauty of the Cannonball Tree.

Text and Photographs by Sahastrarashmi
Thanks to my friend Shanmugam R for his partnership in photo sessions and explorations in the world of Cassias, from Pondicherry all the way to Mysore via Bangalore.

The Green Ogre – Birds, Wildlife, Ecology and Nature notes from India.

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