Neem Chameli-Indian Cork Tree

The last two months were suffused with the heavy scent of the Saptaparni flowers that hung in the early morning air. With the monsoon finally receding, this month there is a change in the atmosphere, and the scents in the air. The crisp dawns are now fragrant with a delicate scent. Following ones nose and looking up one sees some trees laden with clusters of white flowers. In the pre-dawn light, one may think that the Saptaparni is blooming again. But no, it is the turn of another night bloomer with white flowers—the Indian Cork Tree or Tree Jasmine.

This ornamental tree which grows in most parts of India is locally known as Akash Neem, Neem Chameli, Betati Neem, Mini Chameli, Karkku, Malli, Kavud, Machmach, and Buch in different Indian languages.

Native to South Asia and South East Asia, the Indian Cork tree is the sole species in the genus Millingtonia. Its botanical name is Millingtonia hortensisMillingtonia is named after Sir Thomas Millington, an English botanist who was an inspiration to Carl Linnaeus who first described this genus. The word hortensis comes from the Latin word hortensis which means ‘related to gardens’. The tree is commonly planted in gardens and along roadsides.

The Indian Cork tree is a versatile evergreen tree that can grow in various soil types and climate conditions. It grows, generally tall and straight, to a height of between 18 and 25 metres; it has relatively few branches spreading out 7 to 11 metres. It reaches maturity between 6 and 8 years of age and lives for up to 40 years.

This is a hardy tree in terms of climatic adaptation, but the wood is soft and brittle and can snap in strong winds. It has a yellowish grey bark which is cracked and furrowed. Beneath the bark is a kind of cork, which is inferior to true cork, but which nevertheless gives it the name of Indian Cork Tree. The wood can be used for furniture and ornamental work, and the cork is used as a substitute for real cork. This use is reflected in its Gujarati name Buch, which literally means ‘cork stopper’. The leaves are divided into small oval leaflets arranged in pairs along the main rib. They resemble neem leaves, giving it another local name Akash Neem, in some Indian languages.

It is the flowers that attract attention when they blossom in snowy white masses at the end of branchlets. Each flower with four waxy white petals is like a slender tube sitting in a bell-shaped calyx. The flowers open at night and are short lived, showering down to carpet the ground beneath the tree. The fruit is a long slender pod, flattened and pointed at both ends and containing flat seeds. Birds feed on the seeds and help in their dispersal.

As with almost all plants, the different parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes. Extract of its leaves is said to have good anti-microbial properties, and dried flowers are believed to be effective as bronchodilators.

And as with many trees in India, there are myths and folk tales associated with this tree also. I found a really appealing folk tale about the Neem Chameli.

I call it a Cinderella Story.

Once upon a time there lived six brothers who had one sister; her name was Chameli. Chameli was as beautiful and delicate as the flower that she was named for. Her brothers doted on her and showered her with love and care. The wives of the brothers were always jealous of this, but they could only watch in silence. Until one day, the brothers had to go away for work. Before they left they told their wives “We are leaving our beloved sister in your care. Treat her with as much care and love as we do.”

No sooner were the brothers out of sight, than the wives showed their true colours. They took away all of Chameli’s pretty clothes and belongings, and told her, “From now you will do all the housework, and obey all our orders”. The sisters-in-law were cruel and heartless, and the young girl toiled from morning till night, clad in rags and on a hungry stomach, day after day. The delicate Chameli grew frail and ill, until one day, she died.

The wives were frightened; what would their husbands do when they found out? Under the cover of darkness, they quietly buried her in the corner of the garden. When the brothers returned they were shocked to hear from their wives about how their sister who could not bear being separated from her brothers, had fallen very ill, and passed away. The brothers wept and mourned.

In the corner of the garden where Chameli was buried, grew a beautiful tree, which had fragrant blooms. Every morning the ground beneath the tree was strewn with a carpet of delicate white flowers. The brothers loved this tree, and nurtured it with care; the flowers reminded them of their beloved sister. Their wives however were always afraid that someday the truth would come out. They nagged and nagged their husbands to cut down the tree, until finally they agreed. As the axe was about to strike, they heard a soft gentle voice “Oh brothers, do not strike me; I am your sister Chameli”.

The brothers were taken aback. Eventually the truth about their sister came out. The brothers embraced the tree and promised to care for it as long as they lived. And that how, it is believed, this tree was named Neem Chameli.

As I collect the fallen flowers and breathe in the gentle fragrance of the Neem Chameli tree, I celebrate the many seasonal gifts that Nature bestows upon us.

–Mamata

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