Sunday, 18 November 2007

Midnight Horror!

I have often come across this interesting tree with its clusters of big long pods which rattles in the wind when dry but haven’t known its name until quite recently. And I used to just think of it as the Rattle Tree.

It came as a surprise that it’s actually called the Midnight Horror, the Tree of Damocles or Broken Bones Tree all of which suggest a sinister character of the plant. The first and third names rather baffle me, while the second name clearly alludes to the pods which look like big hanging swords like the one that supposedly hung over Damocles.

On googling for Midnight Horror, the explanation that nocturnal travellers passing by the tree were often startled when they looked upwards and saw what seems to be swords pointing down at them seems rather weak, some explained the pods looked like vultures with drooping wings. The white winged seeds which floats to the ground on ripening are said to resemble broken bones, thus the other name. My own experience is that people passing by a tree with ripe pods especially at night would certainly be alarmed when a sudden gust of wind causes the pods to make a loud rattling sound.

(Photo: The winged white seeds look like graceful butterflies when they float down to the ground.)

Menacing names aside this tree is in fact a beneficial tree whose bark and seeds are used for alleviating pain and counteracting inflammations and fever in Oriental medicine.The Chinese thus have a beautiful name – mu hu die or Tree Butterfly (木蝴蝶) for this herbal plant.

The scientific name of this quite common tree is Oroxylum indicum (Family: Bignoniaceae). It has a big natural range, being found in China, India, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

This is my favourite photo of this tree with a conveniently perched Wallace's Hawk-eagle as an indication of the size of the pods.

Here's the original story of Damocles' Sword, in its original language....
Quamquam hic quidem tyrannus ipse iudicavit, quam esset beatus. Nam cum quidam ex eius adsentatoribus, Damocles, commemoraret in sermone copias eius, opes, maiestatem.... OK, OK, here it is in English:

Dionysius was a fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse. To all appearances he was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers (adsentatores) to inflate his ego. One of these ingratiators was the court sycophant Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, "If you think I'm so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?"

Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like.

Damocles was enjoying himself immensely until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, which was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the tyrant explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like.

Damocles, alarmed and quickly revising his idea of what made up a good life, asked to be excused. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life.

Quoted from this website:

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