The Frangipani
May Musings
In India, we have been through our “Fall” (February – April), when our deciduous trees drop their leaves resulting in a look of barrenness. Most of the flowering trees have bloomed gloriously at the start of Summer, when their flowers, free of leaves were the prima donnas of Lalbagh. This is the time for rejuvenation. Since then a wave of vitality has swept through Lalbagh. The trees are now beautifully dressed with new leaves and are prepared to draw sustenance from the Monsoons. The tender luminous leaves of many trees like the Honge (Pongamia) have now turned a darker green. There are a hundred shades and hues and tints of green and much of this is determined by the structure, formation and texture of the leaves. The colour green always leaves behind a feeling of richness, tranquility and loveliness.
After the blooming of the Palas tree, the Coral trees, the Asoka trees (Saraca indica and Saraca taipengensis ), the Silk Cotton trees, the Raintrees, the Brownea trees, the Lignum vitae, the Pachira, the Jacaranda and so many others in a riot of colours we still have the Gulmohur, the Cassias, Plumerias and the Jarul (Lagerstromea speciosa) and the Copperpod (Peltophorum) blooming in Bangalore.
The Plumeria
Variously known as the Frangipani, the temple tree, the pagoda tree, the champa and lily of the coast, this tree is now found in the Old World across Asia, from India eastwards and in Hawaii. The tree itself has been named to commemorate the French botanist Charles Plumier who collected plant specimens from the Caribbean in the 17th Century.
A stand of Plumeria Trees in Lalbagh
There are two derivations of the name Frangipani - one is derived from the name of an Italian family – the Frangipanis - who were perfumers before the discovery of the Americas, and the second one by French settlers in the Caribbean who referred to the thick white latex of the tree as “frangipanier” or coagulated milk. I have no doubt regarding the etymological route which I would choose: very definitely the one connected with the perfumers. The frangipani is of all flowers the freshest - the flower itself formed simply and elegantly and with a wonderful fragrance. In Hawaii the Frangipani is used to make leis. The preferred flowers for leis are the frangipanis and orchids.
Lalbagh has a large collection of around 50 Plumerias, some to the east of the Rock, others to the southeast of the Lake and a stand west of the path leading from the massive silk cotton tree towards the Cameron Gate abounds with Plumerias of every kind. The flowers are particularly fragrant at night luring sphinx moths to them. The moths pollinate the flowers which have no nectar, transferring pollen from flower to flower in the endless search for nectar – a superb example of subterfuge in nature.
Auroville has a number of formal gardens. The Matrimandir Garden, the 12th garden – the Garden of Perfection is the garden of the Frangipani. I understand at Auroville they have developed a beautiful dwarf Plumeria obtusa which grows about 2 feet in height and is covered with blooms.
The frangipani is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. If a tree is uprooted, it still sprouts leaves and flowers for sometime thus becoming a symbol for endless life and immortality. Both Buddhists and Muslims plant the tree in their graveyards knowing that every day a few of the fragrant flowers will fall gently on the graves of the departed. I am sure if the plant were not from the New World, the Muslims, who had a large vocabulary of flora, would have planted it together with pomegranates and fig trees, in the parterres of their Islamic gardens. Similarly, with their fine sensibilities of form and colour they would have also introduced an Australian tree, the Bottlebrush or Callistemon: “beautiful stamens” into their gardens.

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