The Tulip tree
Spathodea is a large tree growing upto 30m. It has a smooth, light brown, almost whitish, trunk which is sometimes buttressed. The tree is most often straight and tall. The leaves of the Spathodea are large and smooth and appear in pairs. They are dark green, deeply veined and oval shaped. The tree is deciduous especially during hot weather in dry areas. In other areas, however, it rarely loses all its leaves.
The flowers are the most striking part of this tree and make it instantly recognizable. They are orange and crimson and appear in clusters above the foliage. At first one notices the heavy masses of velvety dark olive green buds in up-turned whorls. These then metamorphose into the large crumpled bell like flowers.
The fruits of the Spathodea appear to be like green fingers of a hand pointing upwards and outwards over the foliage. They are six to eight inches long and smooth. Hunters in Africa used to boil the centre of these nuts to get a poisonous liquid.
The Spathodea campanulata gets its name from the Greek word for “spathe” which refers to the ladle-like shape of the petals and from the bell-like shape (campanulata) of the flower as a whole. It is known as the Tulip tree again for the shape of its flowers and the Fountain tree because of the liquid contained in the flowers. This liquid can be squeezed out in a fountain and provides endless entertainment to young children.
The liquid is fairly foul smelling and the tree has been referred to as the “Choo gaha” in Sinhala! The other Sinhala name is Kudaella gaha which possibly refers to the fact that the liquid can be squeezed out of the flower like the blood of a leech. The Tamil name is Patadi.
The Spathodea was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1873 from West Africa and is grown widely for shade, as a wind break and for ornamental purposes. It grows well upto 4000 feet and can be seen throughout the tea estates in the hill country. In Colombo the Spathodea can be seen on Bauddhaloka Mawatha. Spathodea Avenue unfortunately is now bare of this tree.
Compiled by: Ruk Rakaganno, The Tree Society of Sri Lanka.