The tree that never perishes

Trees, plants and shrubs are all important parts of the urban ecosystem. Without them there would be very little urban wildlife. It is impossible to separate the animal from its habitat and Bangalore has the privilege of having many varieties of flowering and non-flowering trees. These trees comprise of both native and non-native species that were introduced into the city. Some of these non-native trees have been in India for long that we take them to be native, some have adapted and flourished so well that we now call them ‘naturalised’.

The Temple Tree. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

The Frangipani , Champa or Temple Tree (Plumeria sp) is one such tree that was introduced into India. It originates from the warmer parts of America, Jamaica, Guatemala and Mexico. It has been cultivated in India for ages and has acquired local names in different parts of the country. It has even been assimilated into the myths and religious beliefs of our country.

There are 31 identified types of this tree but the most common of these are the P.alba and P.rubra.

It is a medium-sized, deciduous tree with a smooth grey-coloured bark. When the bark is pierced a white milky fluid oozes out. This milky substance gives it a few of its common names – Frangipani which is derived from the French word for coagulated milk and the Sanskrit name Kshirachampa which translates as the Milky Champa.

The flower of the Frangipani blooms even after the tree is uprooted. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

During the leafless phase the tree looks pale, ugly and gouty. But once it flowers it is transformed into one of the most beautiful of trees. The leaves are large, about a foot long, and are tapered or rounded at the end depending on the variety. They grow in spirals at the end of branches. The flowers appear in the middle of the leaf clusters. They are five-petaled, large and waxy.

The Temple Tree

Ability to bloom even after being uprooted

Bark is grey-coloured, when pierced a milky fluid oozes out

Looks pale during the leafless phase

Tree transforms during the flowering stage

Used widely for medicinal purposes

Of the two common varieties in India – the Alba is white with a yellow centre and the Rubra is deep pink, with white petals. The flower was a favourite of Mughal Emperor Jahangir who described it in The Jahangirnama as “a flower of increasingly sweet fragrance, it has the shape of a saffron flower but is yellow inclining to white. The tree is very symmetrical and large, full of branches and is shady. When in flower one tree will perfume a garden”.

The tree has the ability to bloom even after being uprooted. Because of this ability it has become a symbol of immortality and is planted by both Buddhists and Muslims next to the tombs of their dead. One of its common names is the Graveyard tree. Due to it being a symbol of immortality the wood of the tree is used by Buddhists to carve the image of the Buddha.

A perfume is distilled from the leaves of the Temple tree. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

In Hinduism it is considered to be one of the holiest of trees and is planted near temples (hence the common name the Temple Tree). The flowers of the tree are offered to the gods. It is sacred to Kamadeva, the God of Love, and is considered inauspicious to cut it.

The tree is used widely by humans – a perfume is distilled from its leaves, the root-bark is a strong purgative, and the milky juice is used in the treatment of rheumatism and skin diseases by mixing it with coconut oil. The bark is used in the treatment of diarrhea.

In Bengaluru, the Temple tree can be found at the premises of the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, near the King’s statue on Cubbon Road, Manipal Centre on Dickenson Road and the premises of the Karnataka High Court.

There is a legend associated with the Champa tree. Long ago there was a king with two wives. The older wife was unable to bear children and conspired to kill all the children borne by the younger wife. She substituted a monkey for the new-born children and over the years seven sons and a daughter met the same fate. All of them were buried outside the palace wall and the younger queen was banished from the palace.

As the years passed seven handsome trees with beautiful fragrant flowers grew outside the palace walls. Along with these seven there was one smaller, delicate tree. The fame of the trees grew within the kingdom and it was said that only the younger queen could pluck their flowers.

The King heard about this and asked his gardener to bring him some flowers. When the gardener returned empty handed the King along with the older Queen went to see them. As the older Queen approached the branches of the trees drew back sharply and the cry ‘Murderer’ was heard. Astounded the King went up to the trees, and their leaves nuzzled his face and they asked him to bring their mother to them. When the King enquired about their mother he was told the truth. The older Queen was banished from the kingdom and the younger Queen reinstated. The trees were brought up as their children. The large tree was the Champa and the delicate one Parul.

About Vikram Nanjappa 15 Articles
Vikram Nanjappa is a Bangalore-based freelance naturalist,writer and wildlife photographer..

3 Comments

  1. You forgot to mention the Kannada name 🙁

    ‘Deva kanigale’

    Isaw that at the Buddha tooth temple in Kandy, water lilies and frangipanis were the only flowers being offered..the pooja baskets loomed so pretty.11

  2. These are the common names for Plumeria – Champa, Frangipani and Pagoda tree; Khera chapha or Pandhra chapha in Marathi, Chameli or Gulechin in Hindi, Kath champa in Bengali, Rhada Champo in Gujarati, Arali in Tamil.

    The Sampige tree ( Michelia champaca ) is called Champak.

  3. Lovely blend of mythology and facts…but I thought the Champa was the Sampige tree.

    I love the Plumeria at all times; I think it looks so beautiful…and added plus…it’s a great tree for children to climb!

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