The streets of Mylapore are lined with trees of fire.

Their luscious red petals, so delicate and soft, scatter with the sea breeze, floating down to coat the streets. They land on the heads of people hurrying about their daily business, on the broad humped backs of cows, on the black roofs of rickshaws waiting by the side of the road. These petals are picked up eagerly by children, who press them into books or offer them to childhood crushes and teachers as impromptu gifts.

I grew up adoring this tree of fire. Known across India as the gulmohar, this tree is actually a native of Madagascar. Armed with the hefty appellation of Delonix regia, the gulmohar originates in the dry deciduous forests of Madagascar but has proved hardy and capable of surviving in tropical and sub-tropical climes worldwide. It is found in Florida (North America), the Caribbean islands (Central America), Paraguay, Peru, and Brazil (South America), the Mediterranean coast (Europe and the Middle East), India and Sri Lanka (South Asia), Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia (Southeast Asia), various provinces of China and Taiwan (East Asia), and across Australia. In India, the gulmohar is also known as the mayflower tree and is a common sight in major cities in warmer regions of the country.

My first encounter with this vivid tree was during school days in Chennai. The road that I took to school was lined with gulmohar trees, each more prolific than the last. I would travel by cycle rickshaw (then a common mode of transport for school children) and pass over twenty gulmohar trees, their crimson blossoms waving gently in the breeze. The schoolyard, too, had a few gulmohars alongside a peepal tree (locally thought to be haunted by a naughty ghost) and an old banyan. While the boys contented themselves with swinging on the drooping roots of the banyan, we girls would collect fallen gulmohar petals to line our pencil boxes and make blankets for our dolls.

The tree begins flowering in April in India, during the hottest part of the year. In Chennai, April through June are known as the fiery months ā€“ partly due to the obscene heat and partly in tribute to the flowering gulmohar. You can find a wide assortment of city dwellers under this shade-giving tree during the summer, from humped cows and scrawny dogs to vendors and auto rickshaw drivers waiting for the sun to sink lower in the sky. A coconut seller would park his cart heaped with large coconuts under a gulmohar tree outside our building and hawk his wares to passing pedestrians. Even in the market, vendors would squabble and jostle for the best spots under shady trees, eager to continue business despite the oppressive weather.

I have a strong love for the gulmohar, a love which has only grown with time. It haunts my path in Bengaluru and I find myself leaning against its firm trunk while birding in the early morning hours. As I lean out of the train window on the route from Bengaluru to Chennai, I often spot the flaming petals of the gulmohar waving in the wind, serenading me as I return to the setting of my childhood wanderings.

Perhaps one day, I too will have a gulmohar tree outside my home to commemorate my love affair with the tree of fire.

2 thoughts on “The Fire Tree

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