With tropical trees madly shedding leaves this month, noticeable even in downtown Bangkok, I wonder how my temple trees are doing, the gigantic ones in red sandstone pots that I left behind in Delhi more than three years ago.
The Thai name for it, ‘lantom’, had sorrowful associations, so they renamed it ‘leelavadee’, that’s ‘lilavati’ to us. Needless to say, its botanical name, Plumeria, comes from a European, a Charles Plumier, who travelled across the Atlantic in the 17th century to discover and document ‘unknown’ flora, while the name ‘frangipani’ apparently comes from an Italian nobleman who invented a ‘plumeria-scented perfume’.
The plumeria, cousin to the oleander, is considered a con artist by botanical writers who say disapprovingly that it has no nectar but only scent with which to lure sphinx moths at night for pollination.
But that’s survival, so wherefore judgment? The plumeria is of use to people too, particularly Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who make ‘leis’ all the time of frangipani flowers, as everyone knows.
Certainly every Indian teenage girl who needs a quick, low-investment outfit for a fancy-dress party knows how to wear a bright cotton skirt of indeterminate floral pattern, top it with something short and bright and fling a string of plumeria around her neck and there, she’s a Hawaiian Girl.
A perfectionist might even scare up a small pineapple lantern from the juicewala to hang from a stick as an accessory.
But practicality probably wins, since a pineapple is a nuisance to take along to a party or anywhere for that matter, unlike soft, thornless plumeria flowers.
Besides attracting sphinx moths, assorted islanders and teenage girls, the temple tree, quite like the banana tree, is known to be hospitable to ghosts and vampires, especially in lands around and about the Indian Ocean.
These personalities rejoice in names like pontianak, kuntilanak and matianak, all foreign churels, ghosts of women who died in childbirth, which seems a popular ghost-type in Asia, unless it’s a Filipina tiyanak, who is a child-ghost, not a mother-ghost.
There’s even a city in Borneo called Pontianak after the scaring of a sultan, located almost exactly on the equator, reportedly rife with plumeria.
Unsurprisingly in Hindu-Buddhist culture, plumeria flowers are offered to the gods, hence ‘temple tree’.
After such otherworldly intensity, it is almost with relief that we turn to Cantonese, in which the plumeria is prosaically observed to be ‘gaai daan fa’, the ‘egg yolk flower’.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture