Saturday, September 19, 2009

Almost evergreen

It is such a common sight in Chennai; the raintree has been used to line so many roads in the city, that it comes as a surprise to know it is not native to the region - indeed, it is not native to India, having been brought from Central / South America. From the forests of Mexico, Peru and Brazil, this tree has travelled to all the tropical regions of the world, with each region bestowing it a name (even its scientific name is in some confusion: it is called both Albizia saman as well as Samanea saman): monkey-pod tree, 5-o'clock tree, sleepy-faced tree, french tamarind... but the name 'raintree' was apparently coined in India.

Why 'raintree'? Again, there are several explanations, so take your pick. One, that the tree is host to a species of cicada, and their honey-dew like discharge fall like rain. The tree shuts its leaves when the skies go dark; during the monsoons, therefore, the raindrops fall through to the ground below - that's another explanation for its name. It is unique because most large trees of similar size provide shelter from the rain. The saman does not do so, despite being a contender for 'large tree' awards. It is an uncommon occurance for its leaf-faces to be splattered with rain - this one just got a little late in closing!

Hitachi has used one of the largest raintrees - on the Hawaiian island of Oafu - as part of its corporate identity since the early 1970s and in 2007, agreed to pay $ 4 million over the next 10 years for continued maintenance of that tree. That's indeed a lot of green!

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