Chakwal’s cherished ‘flame of the forest’ disappearing

Published June 3, 2017
Flame of the forest trees in full bloom near Basharat village.
Flame of the forest trees in full bloom near Basharat village.

CHAKWAL: The country’s sole pocket of flame of the forest, a tree species native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the subcontinent and Southeast Asia, is waning.

Known locally as Chahchra or Dhaak, the tree’s botanical name is butea monosperma, and is one of Salt Range’s most fascinating features.

Flame of the forest is found in the Kahoon valley in the Salt Range. The trees can be spotted along Aara-Basharat Road, near Amrila and Phadial villages and in Parira Forest.

The species is a wild plant that can grow in any kind of salt and withstand changes in weather, but it receives little interest from the general public or the Punjab Forest Department, despite being considered a prized tree by nature enthusiasts and quacks.

The species is now on the wane in the area because villages use its wood for fuel and saplings of the tree are not being planted in the area. According to Professor Sada Hussain, the head of the English department at the Government Postgraduate College Chakwal, who frequents the area: “A few years ago, ‘flame of the forest’ trees were in abundance in the area, but now their number has decreased substantially as people use their wood as fuel.”

The main attraction for nature enthusiasts are the tree’s flowers.

During Visakh, the second month of the Punjabi calendar which falls between April 15 and May 15, the Pirara Forest Reserve and areas around Amrila and Phadial take on a fascinating look due to the orange-red hue of the tree’s flowers.

The flowers remain in full bloom for a month, after which they shed and leaves appear.

“The leaves are pinnate, with an eight to 16 centimetre petiole and three leaflets; each leaflet is 10 to 20cm long,” a senior official from the Punjab Forest Department explained.

The trees’ fascinating leaves sprout after its flowers have been shed. — Dawn
The trees’ fascinating leaves sprout after its flowers have been shed. — Dawn

In some parts of southern India, dhaak leaves are used as plates.

The size of the tree ranges from 20 to 40 feet, and while many trees have twisted trunks, some are also straight.

‘Flame of the forest’ is a slow grower and does not have much wood. Locals say quacks from Punjab visit the Kahoon valley to pluck flowers from the trees to use in their medicines.

Speaking to Dawn, Forest Subdivisional Officer Mohammad Rizwan admitted that ‘flame of the forest’ saplings were not being planted in the area. “Although some people grow this tree in nurseries, we have not planted any saplings,” he said, but added that his department would make an effort to promote the species.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2017

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