Reading Sterculia — the vendor of saris by
Flowers of Firmiana Colorata
By Salil | Issue No.2 Journeys | |

Sterculia — the vendor of saris

Radha Veach

With studied nonchalance and restraint he displays his goods. A connoisseur both of human nature and of the unsurpassed excellence of his merchandise.

The vendor of saris begins by pulling first one and then another from the shelf behind him and tossing it onto the sheet in front of the customer. A few more saris drop in quick succession, neatly folded, landing in an uneven cascade of cellophane. The start of the ritual.

The lady has come with her mother, aunt and sister. Almost equally nonchalant at first, slightly timid, and with excitement not easily concealed. Bangles chink, hands move out to see and feel.

Still folded in bud they tend to look quite run of the mill. Masses of clusters of unopened flowers in different configurations around the extremities of bare branches. You probably wouldn’t look twice. But here’s a well-kept secret:  This winter collection of Sterculiacae flowers is unmatched. And not only its winter bloomers; no other family of the plant kingdom in this part of the world boasts such variety in its flower designs, such exquisite workmanship and minute attention to detail. No other family of trees, I should add, lest you be an orchid fan — in the line of tree flowers they are quite unparalleled.

Attracted by the glimpse of a rich border the lady draws the first sari towards her. The vendor reaches over and unwraps it. Look madam see the work, see the colour, one minute, one minute.  Mathematical folds and sheets of tissue paper fall away, the cloth assumes a graceful form and springs to life.

All our cold season Sterculias tend to stand apart the better to display their flowers and to entice their pollinators. The naked boughs themselves are striking, especially those white limbs of the ghostly Sterculia urens, our first to come into flower. Thick woody tips pitted with scars of fallen leaves are adorned with a mist of hovering flower buds.  As early as November the winter sun starts to draw out the tiny blooms a few at a time. At first it’s a rather amorphous mass but by December it’s almost showy. The little buds are very fuzzy, green with a hint of red, and when they open you see 5-petalled stars sporting a multitude of yellow-greens punctuated by bright crimson centres. It’s an effect of double shot silk, a weave of the highest count.

Flowers of Sterculia Urens

Flowers of Sterculia urens

At once the lady is struck by the rich texture of the border. Didn’t expect to see something quite so beautiful.

‘See the pallu madam,’ flowers interspersed with shocking crimson pointed stars of the richest velvet and a blouse piece to match.

Around the same time, or slightly later depending largely on soil and water conditions come the starlike blooms of another species, Sterculia guttata. You’ll see these in wetter forests, often at the top of waterfalls and at the edge of precipices. They announce their presence well in advance with a scent of carrion which is designed entirely for the benefit of its fly pollinators. In case one of your senses is offended by an unfavourable first impression and you are tempted to turn around, be assured that the smell dissipates as you come closer. The tree more than makes up for any affront to the nose by creating flowers of the highest artistry to please the most discerning eye.

They are clustered along pinkish hairy stems radiating out in all directions from the tips of the branches, dozens of flowers on each stem. Fashioned of a dark yellow, spotted with sultry purple, and outlined in white. The pointed lobes curl backwards seductively to reveal ornate white curly centres.

sterculia guttata

Flowers of Sterculia Guttata

Flowers of Sterculia guttata

And if you’re a langur monkey you will consider these flowers to be in the best of taste. You will sit on a branch, strip them systematically from the stems and relish them one by one.

How would this colour be for evening wear? Quite classy isn’t it? Let’s see the end piece. O, what a surprise! Purple and red side by side!  How do the designers come up with such stunning colour combinations? The fruit of S guttata are hard roundish capsules which grow in clusters. From a distance you would be forgiven for comparing them to large peaches as they blush from green to orange, to a bright red before cracking open to display rows of shiny black beads. The monkeys love these too, by the way, and assist in seed dispersal.

One word of warning in case you feel tempted to touch any of these Sterculia fruit: what looks like a soft rich velvet is actually a covering of fine stinging bristles.

Our third main desi Sterculia tree has the most immediately enchanting blossoms of all. Sterculia villosa is a popular item in both winter and spring collections, at least in our drier forests. He’s found in rocky waterfalls, on hilltops and even on the edge of a mangrove scrub. Little yellow bells with red centres dance on bright pink stems. Real Easter shades and they call out to you at once. As soon as they’re open you can’t miss these lovely cheerful flowers, universally popular but never common or common looking.

Sterculia Villosa flowers

Sterculia villosa flowers

The lady’s won over right away. And now she lines up all three saris, looks back at the other two and feels confused. So far she hasn’t asked about the prices, her mind is jumping ahead and wondering if she might have more than one. The salesman is just getting in his stride.

He goes on to pull out two new designer labels, Firmiana and Eriolaena. Both from the Sterculia family of course.

Firmiana colorata lights up our deciduous forests from the end of March through to April, at the peak of leaf fall. Some call the tree ‘Forest Fire’ and no prizes for guessing why.

FLowers of Firmiana Colorata

Flowers of Firmiana colorata

Fluorescent orange bells with long tubes and a fuzzy sandpapery finish. The little triangular lobes at the end and yellow linings make for elfins’ hats. A showy colour for the summer season and a unique texture of fabric. Wear this colour and you’ll easily stand out in a crowd.

Let me tell you about the fruit too. These are hanging mobiles for the elfins’ babies made of a few diaphanous wings each with a couple of seeds attached to the sides. They rotate in the wind until they are ripe and then the propellers launch themselves on a hot afternoon gust taking their seeds far away from the parent tree.

Firmiana Colorata seeds

Firmiana colorata seeds

As a complete contrast to those fiery flowers we have the cool elegant Eriolaenas. The Eriolaena label is just the thing for those late summer or early monsoon occasions.

Much larger flowers on long stems, sleek profiles in yellows and greens set these apart from all the others. An original, rather bold motif. Slender oblong petals are curled right back between sharply pointed sepals that radiate out like a star with deflexed textured claws between them. Then there’s a golden tuft of stamens in a column at the front and an extended style ending in 5 delicate lobes. The effect is quite glamorous yet understated. The strange thing is you will never notice these flowers unless you really look for them. The trees grow up on the hills and on the ghats, usually where it’s rocky and steep and where you might be more busy looking at the ground.

We are often surprised to see such exquisite flowers blown down from the trees during the first rain storms. Did this exquisite work of art really fall from this plain looking little tree? It looks sort of other worldly.

Flower of Eriolaena

Flower of Eriolaena

There follows a hushed conference between the ladies. Their eyes dart towards the yards of multicoloured fabric strewn over the dais in unruly abandon. Fingers pull first one and then another to the top of the pile, then place them side-by-side. Each is more appealing than the other.

These are my finest saris from our desi label madam, the highest quality. Would you allow me to show you a few pieces in the exotics line? See the imported designs, madam. Very popular with the ladies here. You will find them slightly cheaper in price, very economical, best value, madam.

The ladies acquiesce and slow their chatter.

I think you liked the orange colour madam … here, another orange-red pattern. Very fashionable these days, we sell many of these in all our outlets.

Sterculia foetida is one of our popular garden exotics, being originally from East Africa and Australia. Why did we import a tree whose flowers smell, well, foetid, is a good question for the gardeners and landscapers. My guess is that they would point to the predictability and speed of its growth. True it’s a well-mannered tree, well dressed and none too fussy as regards soil and water.

The profusion of star-like flowers sport a range of colours from orange to maroon to brown. If you look up into the tall straight tree they shine red in the sun, if you look at them when they’ve dropped you see muddy maroon and yellow around the edges. In true Sterculia fashion they radiate out on long stems from the ends of the branches. A good year-round tree for everyday wear.

Flowers of Sterculia foetida

Flowers of Sterculia foetida

He hesitates for a second to show the lady the white sari, although he knows that nowadays white is quite chic and no longer confined to widows and funerals. This one represents the height of elegance and is the pinnacle of the Sterculia garden collection. Pterospermum acerifolium, the dinner plate tree.  Dinner plate because of the large orbicular leaves, creamy white on the back.

We cultivate it mostly for its luxurious sweetly perfumed flowers whose fragrance lasts long after they have fallen and shriveled up. (Keep a few dry flowers in a drawer with your linen). They appear pristinely white in the centre of thick velvety ochre buds that split and peel back into five long segments rather like a banana. The design is daring and eye catching yet sophisticated with a perennial charm.

Flower of Pterospermum acerifoliur

Flower of Pterospermum acerifoliur

You may have seen it in Rani Bagh (now Veermata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan), where a whole assortment of the Sterculia family are planted and on show.

There too, by the way, you’ll find a favourite year round item from abroad called Kleinhovia hospita, the Guest tree. Delightful  baby-pink blossoms, about the closest we get to the cherry blossom effect in Mumbai.

Kleinhovia hospita flowers

Kleinhovia hospita flowers

And if you’re looking for intricacy of flower design amongst the introduced species, madam, please see this jewel of a piece. An all time favourite, an irresistible pattern for year round wear, formal, or informal. The very finest weave, filigree embroidery and natural dyed silk. We have it in two shades, light and dark, your choice.

Yes, the tree may not look like much. You could walk past it many times and assume it is not yet flowering season. You might see only large drooping leaves and crooked little branches.

But look closely for the flowers and this is what you’ll see: finely crafted earrings, ready to wear, growing straight out of the trunk and branches, hidden in the shade, and just once in a while showing their faces to a ray of sun in the under-storey.

Theobroma cacao flowers

Theobroma cacao flowers

This is Theobroma cacao, the tree whose seeds are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate. It’s native to tropical forests of Central and South America and cultivated wherever we can make it grow in India, though I don’t think it’s come to Victoria gardens yet.

With this one the vendor of saris sits back, the chocolate flower pallu with its fine embroidery draped gracefully on top of the pile. The performance is almost over and he starts to busy himself tidying up the counter.

Then the customer delivers her lines. But he is quite adamant. “Oh, no madam. This is a fixed price store.  As you can see we stock only highest quality pieces woven by skilled craftsmen.  Our designs are exclusive.”

He gives a wan smile and adds softly “You could always go for a Combretaceae, say the Terminalia collection perhaps … or a Sapindaceae. Try three doors down on the left madam.
Botanical note: 

I have taken a botanical liberty in writing about the flowers of the family Sterculiaceae. Sterculiaceae is a family of plants which has recently been absorbed into Malvaceae, along with three other families which were previous regarded as distinct. The new taxonomic  classification has come about as a result of the availability of new molecular data which invalidates the old system of categorization. Sterculiaceae included about 70 genera totaling around 1,500 species of tropical trees and shrubs.

Radha Veach is a barefoot botanist, forest explorer and nature lover, based in Matheran for the past six years.

1 comment so far — Join the discussion
  • Archana

    Wow! Thoroughly enjoyed this reintroduction to the Sterculias… if I may say so… Great observation and wonderful photos.

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