Hot, sultry, uncomfortable would be an accurate description of summers in Mumbai. But bringing some cheer and respite amidst the dreary heat and humidity, are an array of blooms, bursting with vibrant hues and colours. From the golden lantern-like Laburnum to the scarlet showers of the Gulmohar, summer is indeed the season of flowers, says Mallika Iyer
Did I hear you lamenting about summers in Mumbai? Save mangoes and lychees, nothing much else you can expect to look forward to, in the dreadful Mumbai Summer?
Hear Hear! There is reason to cheer! Summer is also the season when the streets turn into red and yellow carpets from the fallen petals of the Copper Pod and the Gulmohar. It is when the Amaltas, the Golden Shower tree, tumbles fourth in all its glory. It is when the Jarul or the Queen’s flower begins to bloom and the Champa diffuses its magical fragrance in the breeze. So, let’s raise a toast to these majestic sentinels that add a dash of colour and vibrancy to the summer landscape of the city.
The state tree of Kerala, the Laburnum (Amaltas) flowers in the month of April, just in time for the Vishu celebrations, where it plays a central part. Famed for decorating the gardens of Indraprastha in the Mahabharata with its dazzling cascade-like drooping clusters, it is said that the tree acts as an air purifier and cooler by releasing several litres of water each day through transpiration. The flowers, a symbol of gold and prosperity, are associated with Lord Shiva and even used as food by some tribes. Laburnum Street near Gamdevi, which houses the famous Mani Bhavan (Gandhi’s residence in Mumbai) takes its name from the rows of Laburnum found there.
Also known as the Flamboyant Tree, the Gulmohar is a common wayside tree in several parts of India. It bursts with flowers during the months of April-May and lays out a delightful red carpet with its scarlet red petals. Four of its crinkled spoon-shaped petals are a deep red while the fifth is white splashed with red and yellow. A common ornamental tree across the tropics, it is said to have nearly vanished in its original home in Madagascar. A blooming Gulmohar is impossible to miss and can be found all over the city’s roadsides and gardens.
Originally from Brazil, the tree is one of many exotics introduced into India for its beautiful flowers. Between March and May, it’s crown is filled with clusters of violet and lavender bell-shaped flowers. Its leaves resemble that of the Gulmohar and its hence referred to as the Neeli Gulmohar. Though not very common in the city, it can however be found along road sides in Colaba and Dadar.
One of the most common roadside trees, the Copper Pod flowers profusely during the summer months and lays out a golden carpet on the street with its shower of bright yellow petals. Known as the peeli gulmohar, the tree flowers in clusters, each flower containing five yellow petals which look like crumpled tissue. It can be seen all over the city.
Popularly known amongst children as the Pichkari due to its large flowers that squirt water, it is a common ornamental tree in Mumbai. The flowers are bright scarlet red with an orange base and can be seen growing at the tree tops. As they look like bell-shaped cups, they are called African Tulips. It can be seen near the Oval Maidan and gardens across the city.
One of the most fragrant flowers, the Champa (Frangipani/Pagoda Tree) flowers profusely during the summer months. The strongly scented flowers are white in colour with a yellow centre and grow in clusters at the stalk-edge. Variations in colour are found. The tree is native to tropical America and was perhaps brought to India by the Portuguese. A record from 1787 finds this tree growing abundantly in Malabar Hill. It is a common ornamental tree found across the city.
Believed to be one of the favourite trees of Lord Krishna, the Bakul (Maulsari/Indian Medlar) is an important tree in Indian mythology and is often planted near temples. The fragrance of its little white flowers is long-lasting. One can stand underneath the tree, give it a shake and enjoy a shower of its scented flowers. It can be found in gardens across the city.
Price of exotica
While admiring these beauties, one may do well to remember that exotic trees such as the Gulmohar, the Copper Pod, the African Tulip and the Jacaranda may look stunning but are not as good for the environment as native trees like the Peepal, Neem and Laburnum. Exotic trees are often short-lived as they have shallow root systems and topple easily during the monsoons. Further as they have not evolved in this environment, they do not support other life forms such as insects and birds, as indigenous trees like the Banyan and Mango do. While planting trees, one may do well to select native species over flamboyant exotic ones.
A unique hobby
If you are the kind of person that likes to step out and wander in gardens and tree-lined boulevards seeking to know more about these green giants, you need nothing more than your own curiosity for a guide. Unlike birding, tree walks don’t demand that you wake up early, travel great distances, strain your eyes or invest in expensive binoculars. Your neighbourhood can be your arena. And for the enthusiast, the city still abounds with green vistas like the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey Colony, Navy Nagar, Five Gardens, IIT and more. The only advisable investment for tree-discovering would be The Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide by Pradip Krishen (DK Publishers). Don’t get fooled by the name. The book can be used in many parts of India and any tree-lover will swear it is the best tree-guide available!
So, the next time you are walking down a tree-lined avenue, stuck in traffic on a congested road or merely gazing out of your window, take a moment to stop and stare. The dazzling carpet has been rolled out in all its royal splendour. The koyal and the bulbul call out melodious invitations. The feast beckons. Come on in!