Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Kachnar Tree: A Botanical Gem in Himalayan Hideaway’s Garden

If you wander through Himalayan Hideaway’s garden of native plants, you’ll find a number of shrubs and trees that not only play vital roles in the local ecology but also have a rich variety of medicinal, culinary and other uses.

One of the most striking is kachnar (Bauhinia variegata), a small to medium-sized flowering tree in the pea family found right across Southeast Asia, from southern China to India and Pakistan. Its twin-lobed leaves look just like a camel’s foot-print, giving it one of its evocative common names – ‘camel's foot tree’. Other attractive names are the ‘orchid tree’ and ‘mountain-ebony’.

In the dry season, usually between March and April, kachnar sheds its leaves and stunning flowers begin to appear on the upper branches. But flowering times differ according to the local micro-climate, starting as early as January and going on until May in some places. Sweetly scented, the waxy blooms vary from white to purple (depending on the variety) and are an irresistible magnet for birds and insects, which come to feast on the bounty.

Around Himalayan Hideaway you are likely to see both the purple and crimson sunbirds enjoying the rich nectar supply. The relationship between sunbirds and kachnar were highlighted in painful lines written by a poet grieving for his father:

“My father sleep on/after the pain and/ Burning canker.../ The kachnar tree blooms/Again and the little/Sunbirds come to seek pollen/but you come only in dreams/Graves do not speak/nor do kachnar flowers talk/That's the damn irony!”

However, the sunbirds never have the kachnar blossoms to themselves. The flowers are just too delicious! Orange-bellied leaf birds arrive to eat the petals and drink at the ‘nectar bar’; black bulbuls also feast on the flowers; and the flower-peckers (both thick-billed and fire-breasted) are lured both by the sweet nectar and the insects that swarm over the tree.
Uses for kachnar

From the bark to the buds, this tree has an astonishing range of uses. Its wood is quite hard and suitable for making agricultural implements. From the trunk comes a gum that swells in water and the astringent bark can be used in dyeing and tanning. The twin-lobed leaves provide nutritious fodder and are sometimes used to make beedis. In India and Pakistan, the flowers and buds are used in curries, usually combined with chicken, yogurt and spices.

In addition, the root, flowers and bark have a number of roles in traditional medicine (although we do caution you to consult with an expert before distilling your own potions!). Herbal practitioners use kachnar to combat asthma and ulcers while the buds and roots are good for digestive problems.

Tags: Himalayan Hideaway, traditional medicine, medicinal plants, herbal medicines, kachnar, sunbirds, camel foot, orchid tree, mountain ebony, Bauhinia variegate, Orange-bellied leaf birds, flower-peckers, purple sunbirds, crimson sunbirds, trees, pea family, himalayas

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