Mahua (Madhuca Latifolia or Indian Butter Tree)
The 'mahua' or Indian butter tree (Madhuca Latifolia) is common in many Indian forests. A deciduous forest tree, celebrated in the folk songs of North India, this tree is especially important for its sweet, fleshy and edible flowers. This large, deciduous tree sheds its leaves at the end of winter and sprouts new leaves and flowering in spring. The leaves are borne in clusters at the end of branches and the young leaves, which are a bright coppery red, are a beautiful sight in February-March. The cream-coloured flowers are borne in clusters near the end of small branches. They have plum-coloured calyces and appear from February to April when the trees are almost leafless. The tree blooms at night and the flowers fall to the ground at dawn. Each flower is borne on a separate green or pink furry stalk. The flower has eight or nine petals arranged to form sort of tube. The fruit is a green juicy berry, ripening in July and edible.
The tree has varied uses. The nutritious flowers are the staple food of forest dwellers of central India. The flowers are eaten raw, cooked or made into sweetmeats. The Adivasis (aborigines) of Chota Nagpur and Madhya Pradesh eat the flower throughout the year after drying it in the sun and preserving them. They are also fermented to produce country liquor. Crushed seeds yield oil that is used as a substitute for ghee, hence the name butter tree. Mahua oil is used for illumination and mahua cake for manure. The bark is used as a dye and the sap has medicinal properties. Forest animals, especially the sloth bear, cannot resist the lure of mahua flowers.