Monday, 10 September 2012

The majestic legends of a Sacred & Sad Tree

Had fell in love, couldn’t avoid the pain for this love wasn’t reciprocal, becoming sorrowful for the whole eternity.

In short, this is the legend I heard about a tree native to the Indian sub-continent – the Parijat or sad tree. The reason for such a name is something that always made me curious – why was this plant condemned to have such a dreadful and miserable destiny? Of course it had to have love involved at some level. After all, isn’t love the mother of all emotions? Love or the absence of love is the root of all feelings and such a pain that lasts the whole eternity had to be linked with this. 

Let’s start by dissecting the scientific name of the plant, Nyctanthes arbor-tristis means literally “night-blooming sad tree”, so it does give us already a clue about the behaviour of the plant – flowers bloom at night. Taking a look at the flower and blooming patterns, the candidate pollinator can be guessed. The flowers are definitely designed to attract night-pollinators – the colour, the night-blooming condition and the characteristic sweet fragrance that Oleaceae is well-known to exude is also very strong at night. Linked with the size and shape of the flowers, I can only think of a moth to do this kind of job!

One of the legends say that the heavenly Parijat tree was brought to this world by Lord Krishna as a gift for one of his wives, Rukmini. [Source:]

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the first legend I heard is about an Indian princess, Parijat who fell in love with Surya-deva (the Sun-god), which deserted her. Heart-broken and in despair, the princess committed suicide, was cremated and brought back to life from the ashes in the form of a tree. Incapable to bear the sight of the one that lead her to kill herself, the flowers only bloom at night, and it is said that the flowers are shed like tear-drops in the first shade of dawn. It is a romantic but cruel story from which Linnaeus was probably based to name the tree. But apart from this one, there is a much important story that puts this plant into a sacred level in several Asian religions as Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Parijat tree is linked with a very famous episode from the sacred texts Puranas that describes a wish-fulfilling divine tree formed during the Churning of the Milky Ocean. Other legends were made around this incredible tree, but it would be an endless post if I start telling them all!

Sagar Manthan by Raja Ravi Varma representing the Churning of the Milky Ocean, and the Parijat tree represented as one of the treasures churned by the gods

No wonder though that this tree, known to be sorrowful, is full of stories and legends around it. It has a special behaviour, and descriptions say that the fragrance produced take us to drawn into its sweetness – it perfumes the entire universe it is said and so its essential oil is used in perfume-making. Also, it is popular for medicinal purposes in Asia, including Ayurvedic medicine.

The flower of Nyctanthes arbor-tristis. [Source: Saroj Kumar Kasaju]

Botanically it might be a bit boring – or is it?! This is Oleaceae, we are in the realm of Lamiales, the land of merism hodgepodge. But in Oleaceae things seem to be more pacific and there is a pattern we can rely on: usually flowers are hanged in the tips of branches forming wonderful cymoses of rather small flowers. These usually have four petals and two stamens, so it seems to be quite easy to spot a member of the Oleaceae family. But because this lovely one has to be special in every field, the merism is higher here than in the rest of the family (along with some Jasminum) and the number of petals can go from 5 to 8. 

I am only sorry that we cannot feel fragrances through internet yet! :)

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The legend of the money tree

Dillenia indica is a plant native to tropical Asia, brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and it was a Portuguese that built up the idea of a tree that produces money. The legend says that D. Pedro I of Brazil (D. Pedro IV of Portugal) sent the fruits of this plant to Portugal with the note “In this land money grows on trees”. When the Portuguese opened the fruits they were astonished! All the fruits had patacas’ coins inside! – the Brazilian currency used on those days. This was a very extravagant way that D. Pedro found to symbolize the natural richness of Brazil

D. Pedro I of Brazil

As you can imagine that was a trick, Dillenia does not grow patacas nor any other currency in their fruits, but the trick was so good that the legend remained and stayed in people’s imaginary – even today people from Portuguese speaking countries keep talking about the Patacas’ tree as a hypothetical easy way to make money, but I can assure that such trees do not exist!

Imagine what it would be like if you find a coin inside this fruit...

But the mystery remains – if Dillenia don’t make patacas, how did the fruits had patacas inside without being opened before? I must say D. Pedro had sense of humor, and by using a very cheap trick he managed to keep this legend in people’s mouth until today. The Patacas’ tree is known in Brazil also as the chest-fruit tree, and the origin of this name is the key to solve the mystery. When the flowers of Dillenia are fertilized, the fruit grows in the middle as usual, however, also the petals start developing and growing around, becoming juicy, edible and protecting the fruit inside. Whatever you place in the flower (between the ovary and the petals) remains there, and obviously the coins that D. Pedro placed in the flowers remained inside until they got ripe and someone shopped the fruit

Chopped fruit of Dillenia indica - the coins were placed in the gap between the fleshy petals and the inner core - the real fruit! Source:

Basically, the coins were not inside the real fruit, even though for non-botanists that’s what it looks like, the petals and all organs that are part of the flower are not considered to be the fruit, so the juicy edible petals are just that - petals and are not considered to be part of the fruit (at least, botanically speaking). For all those that are now disappointed knowing that money really doesn’t grow on trees, at least now you know how to trick a friend!

Even though the way that the fruit is formed is pretty odd, also the flowers are quite impressive, and have a lot of evolutionary clues to be demystified. From my view, one of the most interesting morphological characters of Dilleniaceae, apart from the petals that become part of the fruit, is the androecium. The androecium is known to be polyandric in most cases, which means that it is formed by many stamens (more than double the number of petals), originated by the division of common primordia.

Dillenia indica flower. Source: André Benedito

Some other morphological aspects are said to be related with basal Caryophyllales (including the centrifugally developing multistaminate androecium, persistent calyces and campylotrous ovules), but the truth is that the placement of this group among eudicots is not entirely clear yet.