I had spoken of the Elephant Apple Tree (Dillenia indica) earlier. But this isn’t the only tree that has its seeds dispersed by the Asian Elelphant (Elephas maximus). There are other, equally fascinating examples. One of them is the Slow Match Tree (Careya arborea). It is so named because it was used for making the slow matches of matchlocks. This is how the North Arcot District Gazetteer of 1895 by Arthur F. Cox. described the tree:

“It is useful for gun-stocks, &c.; its fibrous bark is used as matches for match-locks. The Ordnance Department, when searching for a wood suitable for fuses to be used instead of the English beech, were recommended to try this wood, and did so, pronouncing it in every way suitable for the purpose.”

Slow matches were slow-burning cords used by soldiers equipped with matchlocks or muskets. Made of hemp or flax, these made the operation of firearms easier and safer. They were prepared by dipping the cords in chemicals like potassium nitrate. It seems that the British were greatly impressed by the substitute, resulting in its unique nomenclature.

It has other names as well – Wild Guava and Ceylon Oak. The people of South Asia use a number of terms to refer to the species:

  • Kumbhi (Hindi)
  • Godhajam, Kum, Kumari, Kumbhi (Assamese)
  • Dimbil Bol (Garo)
  • Ka Mahir, Soh Kundur (Khasi)
  • Vakamba, Kumhi, Kumbhi (Bengali)
  • Kumbh (Oriya)
  • Kumbha (Marathi)
  • Araya, Budatadadimma, Budatanevadi, Buddaburija (Telugu)
  • Alagavvele, Daddal (Kannada)
  • Peezhai, Karekku, Putatannimaram (Tamil )
  • Peelam, Pela, Paer, Alam (Malayalam)
  • Bhadrendrani, Girikarnika, Kaidarya, Kalindi (Sanskrit)
  • Kahata  (Sinhala)

It seems that the tree is a favourite of not only Asian Elephants but also Wild Boars (Sus scrofa). The bark, with its dark grey, flaky appearance exudes an astringent gum which the pigs find irresistible. This property has made it a sought-after lure for hunters pursuing the wary quadrupeds. It also has some medicinal uses (for people suffering from colds and coughs).

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a botanical illustration of the Slow Match Tree from ‘Plants of the Coast of Coromandel’ (by William Roxburgh). The book was a pioneering effort in the field of South Asian botany and described the species of the Coromandel Coast (along the southeastern edge of the peninsula). Roxburgh (1751-1815), a Scotsman who arrived in India as an employee of the British East India Company, would become famous as the ‘Father of Indian Botany’.