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Fragrance ... on the ground

Two tree species bloom in the night. But with dawn, their splendour vanishes, says O.T. RAVINDRAN.

The flowers of Nyctanthes arbor-tristis...

IN the cooler months we find two species of trees blooming in the night and early in the morning; their fragrant flowers falling and carpeting the ground around them ... a sight some of us may have seen last year.

The first to flower is Pavazhamalli (Tamil) or Parijat (Hindi) Nyctanthes arbor-tristis. Its generic name explains why it blooms at night and the second, or specific, name calls the tree "The Tree Of Sorrow" or "The Sad Tree." In the morning when it has dropped its flowers, some feel the tree appears to look sad. Hence the specific name arbor-tristis.

A small indigenous tree reaching to about four metres in height, it prefers a secluded and semi-shady place to grow. The leaves are oval with pointed tips, toothed at the edges and rough on the upper surface. Its flowers are arranged at the tips of branches terminally and in the axils of leaves. The flowers are waxy white, the star-like corollas five to seven lobed and with coral orange tubes. The fruits are compressed, round and two seeded. The leaves are used like sandpaper to polish wood. From the tubes, a not so fast dye is extracted for colouring silk. The tree begins to flower from late September onwards till December. Flowers open late in the evening.

According to mythology, Nyctanthes arbor-tristis is a heavenly tree brought to earth by the god Krishna. A quarrel over it ensued between Satyabhama and Rukmini, Krishna's wives. But Krishna planted the tree in Satyabhama's courtyard in a way that when the tree flowered, the flowers fell in Rukmini's courtyard.

Another romantic story woven around the tree is about Parijataka, a princess. She fell in love with the sun but when he deserted her she committed suicide and a tree sprung from the ashes. Unable to stand the sight of the lover who left her, the tree flowers only at night and sheds them like tear-drops before the sun rises.

Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, though found in the sub-Himalayan forests, Central and Eastern India, is planted all over the country. The tree belongs to the family Nyctanthaceae. It is easily propagated through seeds and grows well in any soil except waterlogged areas.

The other tree that also flowers at night and sheds them early in the morning is Maramalli (Tamil) or Tree Jasmine Millingtonia hortensis. Believed to have been introduced from Myanmar (Burma) it is a fast growing tree. The name Millingtonia comes from Thomas Millington, an English botanist, while hortensis means "grown in gardens". The tree is a favourite garden and avenue tree. It is also called the Cork Tree, as an inferior cork is processed from its corky bark.

...and of Millingtonia hortensis.

The leaves are large, two to three pinnate and the leaflets are shiny, dark green and with toothed edges. The flowers are white, waxy, trumpet-shaped and somewhat two lipped with five subequal lobes.

Millingtonia hortensis flowers from October till the end of December. The tree does not produce fruits in places like Chennai. It is propagated through suckers which it produces in large numbers.

The tree is not recommended for planting along roads because its wood is weak. It can reach a height of 24 metres. The tree has a straight trunk and only a few branches. Millingtonia hortensis belongs to the family Bignoniaceae. The flowers that fall off are generally not used in rituals. But because of the perfume of the flowers of Nyctanthes arbor-tristis they are very much sought after.

The flowers of Millingtonia hortensis are used in rituals. In Chennai early in the mornings we often find people with flower baskets collecting them.

The waxy characteristic of these flowers ensure their freshness for a long time.

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