In flower the Cannonball Tree is lovely. But, by Toutatis, beware the skull-crushing quality of its menacing fruits
The first time I looked up at a Cannonball Tree, my upward drifting gaze was arrested midway and forced downwards in shock. The reaction, in hindsight, was perfectly natural. Being a great fan of a particular Gaulish village I ascribe to the fear that anything that can fall on your head eventually will. In this case I was staring at huge rusty balls, by all appearance of skull-cracking hardness, hanging 40 feet up in the air and waiting to cause mortal damage to an unsuspecting victim.
The Cannonball Tree (Couroupita guianensis) is a native of the southern Caribbean and northern parts of South America (Colombia, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, Amazonian Ecuador, Amazonian Peru, and parts of Amazonian Brazil). It belongs to the Brazil Nut family and is a botanical oddity. Its unique appearance has ensured its presence in botanical collections worldwide. This evergreen tree, first described in 1775, can grow up to 30 m tall. It seems to have been known in India for hundreds of years – a mystery, since we do not know how and when it came to our shores.
The “odd” feature of the Cannonball Tree is that its flowers, and eventually the fruits, grow out of woody extrusions from the trunk of the tree. These extrusions can be very small, from an upward-jutting stick adorned with a flower cluster, to a tangled mass of 6-feet long extrusions just below the foliage. When not weighed down by the fruits these extrusions resemble a thorny patch of vines twisted, entwined and jumbled up in maddening confusion, each carrying bulbous buds or fleshy six-petalled scarlet flowers.
Once the fruits develop some of these extrusions will straighten out into long thick rope-like strands with fruits dangling at the end. Wisely enough, the Cannonball Tree has never been used as an avenue tree though a trial plantation in Al Qaeda or ISIS-controlled territory is in order. The fruits, which are up to 25 cm in diameter and take a year to mature, crash to the ground with an explosive sound and crack open to reveal a foul smelling pulp.
In its native habitat peccaries (New World relatives of pigs) eat the fruits and help spread the seeds. I am not sure if Indian pigs have developed a taste for the fruit of the Cannonball Tree yet.
The flowers are extremely attractive and aromatic. The petals are scarlet on the inside, with a white base, and yellow outside. There are two sets of stamens. The first, which is infertile, is on the curved hood and are a lovely pink with yellow heads. The hood itself is white and tinged with pink on the exterior. The fertile stamens form a ring at the center of the flower just below the curved hood. These are shorter and have yellow heads. The flower has no nectar and uses the pollen in the infertile exposed stamens to attract bees. In trying to get at the pollen, which the bees use as food, they have to work their way between the two sets of stamens, inadvertently brushing the fertile stamens in the ring.
The large petals, tapered at the apex with the prominent stigma at the center, have been imagined as a representation of multiple cobra hoods around a Shiv lingam. This has earned the Cannonball Tree several Shiva-associated appellations — Shiv Kamal, Kailaspati, Nagalingam, Nagalinga Pushpa, Mallikarjuna, etc. – and lots of survival aid in the form of propagation near Shiva temples. In the native Amazon (where it’s called Castanha de macaco, monkey nut) it is a favorite of shamans and is believed to provide protection against the ill-disposed spirits of the netherworld.
The bark of a young tree at the Jardin Botanique in Pondicherry showed dull red granulations along the length and some knobby growth. However, in the mature tree at Bangalore’s Cubbon Park the knobs were absent while the granulations, though present, were less conspicuous.
Handsome specimens of the Cannonball Tree can be found in most botanical gardens. I saw my first one at the Jijamata Udyan in Mumbai (formerly Victoria Garden). There are nice Cannonball Trees in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park (some pictures here are of this tree) and Lalbagh, and Pondicherry’s Jardin Botanique where I shot this tree extensively.
Do pay it a visit. I am sure you will love it. But remember the invincible Gauls and stay away from remaining under it.
Text and pictures by Sahastrarashmi
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