It’s an Amazonian rainforest species, but quite at home in our city. The towering cannonball tree with its colourful flowers and fruit, can be spotted in several neighbourhoods

No matter which part of Chennai you live in, you would have seen this tree in your neighbourhood. When you did, I bet you stopped — to look up its towering height, breathe in the heady fragrance of its flowers, admire its snake-like vines, wonder what makes its woody nut so round and smooth. But watch out for a falling cannon ball!

You guessed what tree it is, right?

This sample survey shows the nagalinga maram's spread: 10th Cross - Shastri Nagar, house next to Vivek's - Adyar, Nageswararao Park, Pinjala Subramaniyum Street - T. Nagar, R. K. Mutt Road, Wesley School - Royapettah, Panagal/Indra Nagar/Sivan Parks, QMC, Little Flower School - Cathedral Road, Madras/Boat Clubs, NKT School - Triplicane (very old), the stunning grove at Theosophical Society and my favourite opposite VFS Global Services, Sadasivam Street - Gopalapuram. I am tempted to believe these trees escaped the chainsaw simply because they are called by several stern-sounding names — nagalingam, kailashpati, cannonball, sala, Ayahuma (head of spirit), Tu B’Shvat Cannonball, couroupita guianensis (Lecythidaceae).

Travelling across the world, this Amazonian rainforest tree (height up to 35m/115 ft, trunk diameter 80cm/2.6 ft) must have halted on Indian soil, finding the climate familiar. Of course, we claim it is Indian, and the Thais say it belongs to their land, “Hey, it grows all over Southeast Asia!” Researchers of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages cite fossil evidence and written historical records of the tree in Asia as proof of transcontinental trade. Yes, the cannonball tree has made its mark. You see it on the Cochin Trail, at Fort campus-University of Mumbai, and don't miss that striking specimen at Rani Bagh. And just as it does with the bees, the nagalingam attracts a constant buzz of factoids about itself.

Some say you can smell its flowers a mile off. Difficult to check that out, but we know the flower is considered sacred in India as the petals resemble the hood of a naga, protecting a shivalingam (stigma). The distinctive, 3m-long orange, scarlet and pink flowers are also a symbol of wealth. The tree commemorates the Jewish New Year for Trees, and the Shamans of Amazon believe it provides protection against evil spirits. Cannonball tree is not cultivated commercially because its wood isn’t fit for carpentry and the fruit is not sweet. And who willingly chooses a workplace where you have to constantly guard against falling fruit!

Did you notice how the trunk is covered with flowers and fruits? That's because the flowers burst straight from the trunk on a short stalk. Fruits ripen for nine months, fall “thunderously”, pop open, react with air, turn bluish-green, ferment and let off a stink bomb. The Encyclopaedia of Geography has this description: “in the perfectly ripe state, it exceeds whatever is filthy, stinking and abominable in nature.” But the smell entices animals, and they spread the black seeds.

I have not tasted the fruit, but Edible Medicinal and Non-medicinal Plants states the pulp is “vinous (resembling wine), white, acid, and not disagreeable.” Like noni, it’s classified as a starvation fruit. In case you are tempted, check for allergic reaction.

The tree is a standing ingredients factory for nature-based medicines. Unripe cannonball pulp is added to drinks to ward off fever. In folk medicine, the fruit-pulp is applied to disinfect wounds, cure skin diseases.

Farmers feed birds and pigs with cannonball pulp as vaccination against respiratory problems. Supposed to have antibiotic, antifungal, antiseptic, analgesic qualities, its flowers, leaves, bark and fruit are used in preparations to cure colds and stomach ache. Shamans have used the bark for treating malaria, and the young leaves to ease toothache. In Ayurvedic medicine, the leaves go into formulations for alopecia, skin ailments and fever. The shell is tough and durable, and is made into ornaments and bowls. Indian researchers have found anti-depressant qualities in its methanolic extracts and antibacterial activity against pathogens such as E-coli, Bacillus and Staphyloccous in fruit extracts. The flower extracts showed significant, potent antiworm/antiparasite activities, according to researchers in Tamil Nadu. Brazilian researchers have shown that the leaves are pain-numbing, others have said extracts can protect our skin from UV damage, keep hair healthy and ward off signs of ageing. No, you still can't stand under the tree.

Cannonball flowers are of special significance in Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka, says Flowers of India. Catherine Reddy, in her Fruits of India says, according to Buddhist texts, the Buddha was born under such a tree and “the sweet, aromatic blossoms fell around lord Buddha as he took his last breath.” An Indian poem has these lines:

“A gigantic tree with deeper roots holding out delicate flowers for the world to see

Behold this beauty shining pink within a pond of fragrance filling the air.”