A flower of many meanings

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Find the hooded cobra in the flower of the
cannonball tree.

The cannonball tree, near the cycad circle, is flowering profusely, offering a pleasant perfume to anyone who walks by. Couroupita guianensis is found in South America, but has been grown in India for centuries. Considered a sacred plant in India, the flower’s complex structure is said to symbolize a hooded cobra protecting a Shiva lingam. Shiva is the Hindu god who is the Destroyer of life (only if life is destroyed can rebirth and regeneration occur). The lingam is a symbol of Shiva’s phallus, but also a sign of the energy from which creation emerged.  The lingam usually is displayed in a cuplike container, which is female.

In the 1990s, a concrete pillar with a rounded top was placed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and it took little time for Hindu offerings to be made there. In Kashmir there’s a cave at 14,500 feet where an ice stalactite forms every winter, resembling a Shiva lingam. Thousands of pilgrims visit the cave annually, but this year, reported the UK’s Telegraph, a warm summer and too many people caused the lingam to melt early. In some villages, the cannonball tree is considered sacred and is the setting for offerings to Shiva, especially from childless couples.

Meanwhile, back at the Garden, the cannonball flowers are being produced on long wooden stems that emerge from the trunk like so many tentacles.  Sterile stamens arise like small purple and white bristles, while the fertile stamens are much reduced and found around a ring surrounding the stigma.

The cannonball tree has a special place in my heart because it was so badly damaged in Hurricane Andrew that people thought it might be lost. I recall the way it looked after that storm and marvel at its tenacity. Perhaps Shiva is the right god to associate with it.