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The Flamboyan Tree

The Flamboyan! One of the most beautiful trees in the Caribbean. It is a symbol of freedom, an emblem of Puerto Rican culture and many of us have a painting of this tree in our homes. Its history is deeper than you think — it turns out that the tree is not native to the Caribbean, nor to this side of the planet! And what does Flamboyán have in common with beans and coconuts? Why do some think it is an unlucky tree? What does it have to do with the British Empire and the military? And why is everyone obsessed with this tree?

Our story begins in 1821, with the young botanist Wenceslas Bojer, born in Bohemia, the Bohemian region now known as the Czech Republic. He was sent by the Imperial Museum in Vienna to Mauritius, a small island nestled in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. Upon his arrival, Bojer was captivated by the island’s unique flora and fauna. His Mauritian botanical knowledge went unnoticed by the British governor of Mauritius, who then sent him to the neighboring island of Madagascar to explore its dense forests. And it was here on the shores of Madagascar that Bojer Madagascar came across a tree of such striking beauty that it seemed to set the forest on fire. The tree seemed to be celebrating in Madagascar.


He described his journey from Madagascar to the Caribbean for the first time, and when it was finally known that it was a new species, another biologist, William Jackson Hooker, classified it in 1837 as Delonix regia. Due to its brand new color, they also called it “Flamboyán” from the French “Flamme”, which means to flame, due to its color. The plant’s rapid growth, beautiful colors and perfect shade made it an ideal plant for patios and paths, and its fertile seeds that come in their own packaging so to speak made it easy to transport. Mauritius was at the time a strategic trading point of the British Empire for the Indian Ocean. And so, in just a few years, the plant began to spread globally, first to Asia.


You will find this tree, known as the mayflower tree, Gulmohar or Gul Mohr, spread throughout India, from West Bengal to Odisha, where it is affectionately called Krishna Chura, “the Crown of God Krishna.” But it’s not just a pretty face; This tree has become woven into the cultural fabric of India. In Kerala, they call it “kaalvarippoo”, which means “the flower of Calvary”. There is a belief among the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala that the blood of Jesus Christ was shed on the flowers of the tree during his crucifixion. And let’s not forget Bangladesh, where the tree is an iconic symbol of the Bengali month of Boishakh. In addition, the flamboyant tree has spread throughout the Asian continent. And so, thanks to the globe-spanning British empire, the tree traveled from the East Indies to the West Indies across the Mediterranean, growing and spreading rapidly throughout the lands touched by the British Empire and beyond. By the 1880s, approximately 50 years after its discovery, the tree had already become a constant presence in the Caribbean, from Florida to Venezuela.


Legend has it that on May 5, 1895, Jose Marti, Máximo Gómez, and Antonio Maceo met under a Flamboyan, or ‘Framboyan’ as they say in Cuba, to plan the Cuban revolution. This tree is now called the ‘Freedom Tree’, remembering the hard war of liberation that Cuba had to fight to obtain its freedom from Spain. Although it is a legend, there is no doubt that the Flamboyan became a symbol of freedom in various parts of the Caribbean. For example, in San Martín, the Flamboyán is the national tree, because it represents the emancipation of slaves. Every year, on the first of July, the day of liberation from slavery is celebrated there, and the Flamboyan is a central symbol. Thanks to botanist David Fairchild, the tree was introduced to Florida. Inventor Thomas Edison planted dozens of these in his Florida garden, which he shared with his neighbor Henry Ford. Thanks to Fairchild and possibly Ford and Edison, the tree is now very common in Florida.

Likewise in the Dominican Republic the tree became an iconic plant. The city of La Vega is known as the City of Flamboyans, adorning an entire avenue and providing shade to visitors, especially during Carnival time. Some of the old people say that it was in honor of Trujillo that they were planted, although I could not confirm it. It is this leafy shade that is part of its charm. Since Roman times it was customary to plant trees along roads to provide shade for travelers. Napoleon did the same specifically for his soldiers in Europe, and the custom of planting shade trees along military roads was imitated in various ways.