My obsession with the African Tulip began one evening when I was sipping coffee on the terrace of my house, where I had just moved in. The flaming bright red-orange flowers from a few overhanging branches drew me towards the tree. As I approached the small patch of flowers, I could see that it was teeming with life; there was a whole other world right there. From that moment on, a fascinating journey of discovery began – I went about documenting the wildlife in and around this small overhanging patch of the African Tulip and came away delighted, amazed, and wanting for more.

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The African Tulip tree where it all started

The African Tulip’s (Spathodea campanulata) generic name comes from the Greek word ‘spathe’ (blade), because of the shape of the corolla or petal, while its specific name relates to a campanula, a name coined in 1542 by Leonhart Fuchs, a German physician and botanist, for the type of corolla with a broad, rounded base and a gradually expanded tube, like a church bell.

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The buds are filled with water and shaped like a banana. The outer buds bloom first.

A native of tropical Africa, the African Tulip (Neeru Kayi mara in Kannada / Patadi in Tamil) is supposed to have been introduced into India in the late 1900s as an ornamental plant. Growing to a height of almost 25m, and looking resplendent when in full bloom with its orange-red flowers with crinkly yellow borders, the tree is a common sight in Bangalore. The flowers hold a small pool of nectar at the bottom; when it rains, the diluted nectar makes an ideal thirst quencher for the wildlife on the tree. I too have had the privilege of tasting this nectar, alongside a myriad of creatures which frequent the tree.

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A jumping spider on a bud. This one was quite used to me hanging around and we had quite a few stare-downs.

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A weaver ant scurries to join the rest of its million or so worker friends in building a nest. Having them around is beneficial for the tree as they keep away pests.

In its native range, the bark, leaves and flowers of the tree are used as medicine. Its wood is used to make drums and blacksmith’s bellows, while its seeds are boiled by African hunters to extract poison. The tree is also used as a fire retardant as it doesn’t burn easily. As much as it is useful for its medicinal properties, the tree is also listed amongst the top invasive species in the global invasive species database. The Cook Islands, Fiji, Hawaii, Guam and Samoa are all inundated with the Spathodea campanulata.  Researchers met recently in Nadi, Fiji, and wrestled with the challenge of managing its weeds and the conundrum that some plants, like the African Tulip, may be a weed to one person but a useful species to another.

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The seed with its thin, transparent, delicate wings

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The fruits are flat and turn brown when they ripen. They burst open and the wind disperses the seeds. Here, a squirrel is seen munching on the seeds.

Its usefulness became quite apparent when I set out to document the wildlife the tree sustains: barbets make their nests in the soft wood of this tree, visiting Bonnet Macaques stop by to munch on the succulent buds, bats come to roost, Weaver Ants go about building their nests, spiders trawl the foliage looking for prey, squirrels snack on the fruit pods, and noisy parakeets alight for a while before making their journey home.

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The wood of the African Tulip is soft – ideal for barbets to make nests in.

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Bonnet Macaques often visit the tree when it’s in full bloom. They relish the buds filled with water

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Fungi grow in a niche in the tree. Rainwater flows down the trunk and keeps the region moist, enabling moss and fungi to grow.

While the tree did support a large amount of wildlife, it also killed a number of insects; I noticed that insects frequently turned up dead and floating in the nectar at the bottom of the flowers. The flowers, in fact, spelt doom for bees, butterflies and other insects. At one point I witnessed a butterfly stuck in the flower, desperately trying to get out. Upon closer inspection, I realised that the walls of the flower are a little sticky, and this prevents insects from climbing out.

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Insects often drown in the deep blooms

A little research about this phenomenon on the internet revealed that Jamie Garcia, an ecologist in Colombia, South America, did a study on the occurrence of a large number of deaths of bees and other insects which visit the African Tulip. A phytochemical test was run which showed that the flower did contain flavonoids and alkaloids, but the research could not state that these substances were the real cause of the insects’ deaths. Another theory is that the inner wall of the flower is sticky and this in turn prevents the insects from crawling out and may cause them to die (something I witnessed). However, this too is not proven and requires more analysis to arrive at a conclusion.

Irrespective of all this, the last couple of years that I have been documenting the tree have left me in awe of the circle of life which occurs every day in the small patch overhanging the terrace of my house. It’s amazing how a tree in the middle of the city sustains so much wildlife. Every time I walk out of my house, I look up and wonder what new story might be unfolding today.

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A Crab Spider makes a meal of an unsuspecting fly

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A Praying Mantis lies in wait for a prey