I’m ashamed to say that I never noticed this yellow saraca, or yellow ashoka (Saraca thaipingensis), till it bloomed recently. You’d think photographing plants for so long would have made me immune to strange looks, but no. Two hurried snaps were all I got (to the sir staring at me the whole time, no you weren’t hallucinating), but hopefully I’ll be able to make that up if I come across one blooming much more profusely someday. Its relative, the ashoka tree (Saraca asoca) is one of the most ancient and sacred trees in India. Ashoka in Sanskrit means ‘without sorrow’, and amazingly the yellow ashoka’s Chinese name wasn’t lost in translation. 黄花无忧树 means ‘yellow-flowered tree without sorrow’- not too bad as names go.
The positioning of bunches of flowers along the trunk and branches makes for a very unique display. Native to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, and Thailand, the plant is a member of the legume family and is actually named after Taiping, Perak, Malaysia. It can grow to a height of more than 7m, with a wide crown. Young leaves, soft and limp, dangle from the tree before stiffening and turning a darker green after a few days, giving it the nickname ‘handkerchief tree’. Flowers, deepening in colour with age, are mostly male, with the others bisexual. If this works in nature, one wonders if it would work in human society, but let’s leave that discussion for another time. Interestingly, the little flowers don’t have real petals- what they have are four petaloid sepals instead. Large, thin and leathery pods (about 20-45cm long and 4-8cm wide) split open when mature to release flat, black seeds, which germinate easily. The tree grows best in warm, damp, shady areas and sandy soil.
The yellow ashoka isn’t just a pretty tree. It’s food for many butterfly larvae, such as the common tit, sky blue, metallic cerulean, glistening cerulean, common posy, ciliate blue, and copper flash. The flowers feed varying other species of butterflies, as well as birds, which hopefully aren’t actually eating the butterflies instead.
A group of researchers in Thailand showed in 2012 that flower extracts of the yellow ashoka contain antimicrobial and antioxidant activity, specifically against what are known as Gram positive bacteria: bacteria that contain cell walls, and are normally therefore harder to kill, including Streptococcus pyogenes, the nasty bug that causes strep throat.
Now that I (think I) recognize the tree, it’s time to do some serious sleuthing around the city. Hopefully I’ll see some butterflies doing the same, especially the painted jezebel, which is always fluttering near the treetops, reminding me just how notquitetall I am.