One of the most well known trees in India is the Champa , which is rife with symbolism for the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cultures. Featuring heavily in movies, literature and pop culture, it is no wonder that this flower is well recognised by adults and children alike.
While growing up, I would immediately recognise this tree because of its round blunt leaves and the fragrant flowers. However, I would also see very similar looking flowers with pointed leaves and try and figure out what they were. There was definitely some family resemblance. It was only when I became a naturalist, did I realise that there were two kinds of Champa trees in Delhi-NCR, one called Frangipani, the other, White Frangipani (Safed Champa).
Both have served as avenue trees and were brought by travellers from the Atlantic islands and other tropical regions. Pradip Krishen’s book Trees of Delhi tells us it prefers hot, coastal regions. Though they belong to the same family, they have subtle differences. The Safed Champa is the one with rounded leaves, with the other’s pointed but both have leaves of the same texture. They mostly have white flowers with yellow centres, though hybrid varieties bearing coloured flowers.
Champa ( Plumeria rubra ) is a small deciduous tree that sheds its leaves in winter (beginning December), and the Safed Champa is a small nearly evergreen tree that remains green throughout the year. In botany and horticulture, the term deciduous means ‘falling off’. It is a function carried out to conserve water and to survive better in winter conditions.
There are two forms of the Safed Champa found in the city, Plumeria obtusa and plumeria sericifolia . In late February, the leaves of this tree might blacken and fall off if there is an extreme winter wave. The tree mostly flowers in April, then again in the rains but it is quite common to see flowers even in late December.
The flowers mostly have five petals with the petals narrow and hardly overlapping. The tree fruits in May, with each fruit looking like a pair of dark, shiny pods joined at the centre.
The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India