Rangoon creepers and railway flowers

Clusters of the red and pink flowers of the Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum) seem to be growing from every hedge and fence in our neighbourhood. They provide a little colour, even drenched in the continuous rain of this week.

I love the multiple names it has. In Hindi Madhumalti (corrupted to Madhumati in the many web sites on flowers which copy from each other) coexists with the beautiful name Ishq pehchaan. The name can change to Madhumanjari in Bengali and is quite uniquely Radha Manohar in Telugu. The variety of names could be indicative of the geographical origin. Madhumalti does come from the forests of India, east up to the Philippines, and north into southern China. It has a variety of names across this region: in Vietnamese, Malay, Thai, and the languages of the Philippines. The names are mostly quite local and not widely shared across languages. That leaves me with the puzzle: why Rangoon creeper?

But there’s also another puzzle I found when locating names in other Indian languages. Very closely related climbers (C. malabaricum and C. shivannae, among others) grow wild in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, so it is odd that the Marathi name for C. indicum is Vilayati Chembeli (which translates to “foreign Jasmine”). Interestingly, in the neighbouring Malayalam it has a simple name, Udani, but this is shared with Malay and Sumatran. An alternate name in Malayalam, Akar dani, is also shared with Malay. Could it be that Madhumalti does not grow wild in the western ghats, and was a late import in these parts? I’m sure a real field botanist would be able to tell me.

Another flower grows cheek by jowl with Madhumalti in my neighbourhood. That’s the morning glory which is called the Railroad flower (Ipomoea cairica). That’s a very apt name for a highly invasive weed which can easily smother other plants if allowed to grow unchecked. The plant spreads so easily that its aboriginal homeland cannot be located too well. It is believed to have originated in some place in Northern Africa or the Mediterranean, but perhaps even in some islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Looking at the photos I took in yesterday’s rain, I thought that the Railroad flower is easy to distinguish from other morning glories which are common across India. But one has to be careful. The spectacular colours of the Ipomoea indica, native to the West Indies, but widely seen across India, make it easy to tell apart. The oddly-named Bengal clock vine (so called because it is never seen to wind anti-clockwise around support) is perhaps the easiest to mistake for the Railway flower, until you realize that it has a yellowish-cream heart. I’m pretty fascinated by what botanists call the “vulgar names” of plants.