Fact and fallacy about the Asoka tree

BRIGHT BLOOMS Saraca asoca  

We are often tempted to identify the tall, well-pruned trees in parks as "Asoka trees" but they are actually the `nettilingams' or the mast tree and known in botanical parlance as Polyalthia longifolia, of the family Annonaceae.

Native to southern India and Sri Lanka, Polyalthia longifolia is a tall, majestic evergreen tree with a straight trunk having shining, drooping leaves with a wavy margin. The trunk is slender with a compact symmetrical crown and the branches spread more or less at right angles from the stem, giving it a pyramidal shape. The tall, straight trunks were formerly used for making masts in the days of sailing ships and hence the common name "mast tree." The flowering season is from February to April, when star like green flowers appear, giving a hazy appearance to the tree. The inconspicuous greenish yellow flowers found in fascicles are almost hidden amongst dense foliage. The clusters of ovoid fruits are at first green, turning fairly deep purple or black when ripe. The soft and light wood is used for making barrels, packing cases, pencils, matches and for scaffolding and carriage shafts. In Malaysia, the tree is grown around cemeteries and is often associated with funerals and other mournful events. Polyalthia longifolia is an excellent avenue tree planted in close rows. It is a favourite tree in the hands of horticulturists for manicured gardens and landscape architecture. Clamorous and squealing throngs of bats and flying foxes feed on the ripe fruits at night, dispersing the seeds. Festoons of leaves are often used to make arches or are strung across doors during religious ceremonies.

Then, what is the real Asoka? Saraca asoca of the family Caesalpiniaceae, is the `Asoka maram' which refers to the legendary Ashok Vatika, where Sita was kept in captivity. Native to India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Malaysia, it is also called "Sorrow-less tree" because ashoka means "sorrowless". That is why the tree is regarded as a symbol of love and is dedicated to Kama Deva, who is known to kindle passion and love in the human heart.

Saraca asoca is a slow growing, small, evergreen tree with a smooth grey, brown bark. Though the flowers are seen throughout the year, it is from February till May that the profusion of orange and scarlet flowers transforms the tree into a startling beauty. The clusters consist of numerous, long-tubed flowers, which open out into four lobes having the appearance of petals, which in fact is the calyx. At the summit of the corolla tubes, are the fairly long and conspicuous stamens. These flowers are highly fragrant in the night. The young leaves are soft, red and limp and remain pendent even after attaining the full size. The red, straight pods are stiff, leathery and fleshy.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY The mast tree is often referred to as the Ashoka tree

MISTAKEN IDENTITY The mast tree is often referred to as the Ashoka tree  

The bark of Saraca asoca contains the estrogenic compound ketosterol, which is effective against menorrhagia due to uterine fibroids and internal haemorrhoids and also enhances the restoration of the endometrium and stops bleeding. Saraca asoca is a vital component in the ayurvedic medicine U-CAP, capsules used for uterine disorders. The womenfolk of Chattisgarh boil the bark in cow's milk, add sugar and consume it once a day for three days and repeat the course after three months to prevent gynaecological disorders.

Numerous legends are attributed to this tree and it is sacred to the Buddhists and the Hindus who plant this tree around their temples. Buddha is believed to have been born under this tree and Sita, wife of Rama, after abduction by Ravana, was confined in a garden among groves of Asoka trees. It is also seen sculpted on ancient Buddhist temples in Sanchi and Mathura. Being a sacred tree, married Hindu women eat the flower buds of Saraca asoca on the "Ashok Shasthi day" to guard their children from grief and sorrow.

It is time we too spread the message of love by planting Asoka trees in our homes while our civic authorities fulfil their Singara Chennai mission by planting mast trees along avenues and in parks.