The Cork Tree

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By Miguel Braganza
A walk down the Dayanand Bandodkar promenade along the River Mandovi between November and January is sure to draw your attention to clusters of trumpet like white flowers that cover more than half of the tree canopy and to their jasmine-like fragrance or both. You will find a carpet of flowers below the canopy that marks the drip circle with shades of white and cream colour.
Delegates and other visitors to the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) look at this flower-laden tree in wonder. The sight is all the more glorious between April and June, but often goes unnoticed because of the flamboyant red or orange flowers of the leafless Gulmohur and the yellow clusters of the Copper Pod, which are also in bloom during summer.
The tree has a straight trunk with branches spreading out. Its leaves are very ornamental and even when the tree is not in bloom, it is an eye stopper. It makes a wonderful avenue tree besides being an adornment in any garden.
The Indian Cork Tree, Mellingtonia hortensis, is named after the English botanist Thomas Melington. The name is Latinised as per the international rule as in the case of Phoenix furtadonna, the palm named after the Singapore-based Goan botanist Caetano Xavier Furtado from Merces, who has identified more than two hundred plants, which now bear his name at the end. The term ‘Horta Paroquial’ or the ‘Parish Garden’ is common enough in Goa for us to understand that the name ‘Hortensis’ refers to some plant grown in the garden.  Incidentally, this tree’s connection with heaven does not end there. It is known as Akash Mallige or the ‘Flower of the Sky’ in Kannada, while the Tamil and Oriya names for it, Akash Malli, mean the same.
It is used more as an ornamental avenue tree than for making bottle corks out of its bark. We have a tree in our compound and another just across the old NH-17 that is now SH-1 from Mapusa to Dodomarg. This tree is common all along the Konkan coast as well as on the Deccan plateau across Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
Flowers: The milky-white tubular, five-lobed flowers are borne in bunches or panicles. The flowers are bisexual with four prominent anthers. The flowers bloom at night with a mild jasmine fragrance that hangs in the air on misty winter nights. They shed early in the morning to form a carpet on the ground below. The waxy coating on the petals ensures that the flowers remain fresh for a long time. One can make a garland of these flowers without needing any thread because the base of the tube fits well into the mouth at the trumpet end. The sepals of the five-lobed calyx are fused to form a tiny bell. The flowers are often braided together into a veni or hair adornment.  They are used in pooja and other rituals.
Pod: The pod is similar to that of the Gulmohur, but not conspicuous amidst the leafy canopy. The seeds have paper-like wings to help them disperse with the breeze. They have very low viability and most of the seeds borne during winter do not germinate as the soil is dry all through spring and summer in Goa. Some seeds from the summer bloom germinate during the monsoons. This tree can also be propagated by cuttings.
Medicinal uses: Almost all parts of the tree have medicinal properties. An extract of the leaves of Millingtonia hortensis has good antimicrobial activity. The fresh flowers are used in aromatherapy while the dried flower extract is a  bronchodilator. An extract of the root is said to be a lung tonic. The Mellingtonia hortensis is definitely a tree to be considered for avenue planting in our towns, for beauty round the year and the fragrance during at least six months each year.

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