Burning Bright – In praise of the Flame of the Forest

Devoid of flower through the year it is like any other tree pale of trunk and green of leaf. But come March, when the Flame of the Forest burns up the landscape for far furlongs, its incendiary sight you can neither ignore nor forget

I remember Beej telling me about his first visit to BR Hills on damp, foggy morning, and how the Flame of the Forest in full bloom had studded the landscape like the faces of smiling children in a sea of glum grownups. When I saw the spectacle for myself it was an epiphany in itself. 

It was in March last year, when mornings had ceased to be bone-chilling and moved on to what one might call mild and pleasant, that I was on a customary stroll along the bund of the now “ruined for renovation” Hebbal Lake in Mysore. Just next to a fig tree of which I have written some time ago), I noticed a breathtaking transformation. There had materialized a tree, with branches that looked like bare muddied bones covered with orange-red flowers like glowing upturned claws. The morning sun rendered the numerous flowers yellow with gleaming edges. It looked like the tree was smiling – nay, I should say beaming. The name of the tree dawned upon me automatically – from my memory of Beej describing it on one of our trips. Flame of the Forest. Butea monosperma.

A hundred glowing claws

I realized at that moment that I had passed the tree a thousand times without giving it a second glance. I have photographed parakeets and herons perched on its branches without a care for what it may have been. It was just another tree with brown branches and green leaves, innocuous to the extent of being invisible. All of a sudden this tree had transformed into a sight: Its branches conquered by bright orange flowers, as if the tree had gone up in flames. Does spontaneous combustion occur in trees, too?

Tongues of Flame

This year, after returning to Kerala, I had another chance to visit Mysore. My heart bled as I walked along the Hebbal Lake bund, which was razed of the lantana vegetation that grew on its banks (these bushes once resounded with the rapturous calls of White-browed Bulbuls every time we passed them). The only consolation was that the larger trees on the other side of the bund had been left alone. The Flame of the Forest beamed at me, as if glad to see me again.

A closer look at the flowers

Orange flowers like upturned claws, with tiny yellow stamens protruding like snake tongues. In some branches the flowers had given way to fruits – green pods that carry the seeds.  

Look closely and you can’t miss the pods that encapsulate the seeds

Numerous Chestnut-headed Starlings, uttering shrill cries, hopped from branch to branch, looking for nectar and drinking themselves to a state of inebriation. Beej had likened the trees he had seen in BR Hills to happy-hour bars in the forest – with so many feathered patrons swilling their free drinks and paying scant regard to the ogling birdwatchers. Could they be blamed? Such a feast is on offer only once a year! 

The hardy tree, which thrives in a variety of climates and topographies, is a medicinally important plant as extracts from it are used in various drugs. Now I am on the lookout for a sapling for my tiny yard. I’d love to have a Flame of the Forest right next to the mango, guava and sapodilla saplings that I have planted.

Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan
Smitten with flowering trees? You have to check out The Green Ogre’s archive of posts celebrating them!


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