Ashoka (scientific name Saraca indica) is an upright erect tree native to India and the nearby countries of Malaya and Burma (Myanmar). It is a small evergreen tree with a nice compact crown and a smooth bark with a grey or brown color.
The flowers are beautiful and transform the tree into a spectacular sight with their amazing orange and scarlet clusters. The full bloom is usually seen during January and February but some flowers last the entire year. Each cluster is made of a lot of small flowers with a cylindrical shape, which divide into four oval lobes.
There is a large number of such clusters, on every branch of the tree. The color of the flowers changes with age, which can make ashoka even more beautiful.
They are yellow when young, become orange when mature, then turn scarlet as they age, especially if in direct sunlight. Every flower has several long stamens, emanating from a small ring at the base, half white and half scarlet in color. These stamens give clusters a hairy appearance.
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The leaves are shiny, with a strong green color that creates a very interesting contrast with the flowers. Every leaf splits into 4 to 6 leaflets, quite long and with a waved edge. Even the mature leaves are hanging but they are red and soft in their youth. The fruit pods have a length of about 8 inches and a leathery appearance. They can be straight or curved, with a fleshy consistence and a red color.
Ashoka is believed to originate in India where it is considered sacred in several religions. Both Hindus and Buddhists revere the tree and it is a part of very old folk tales and religious traditions. In time, the plant has spread to other areas and it grows today in several South-East Asian countries, all the way to Thailand.
The real botanical name of Ashoka is Saraca indica. However, it is sometimes named Jonesia asoka or Saraca asoka Roxb. It is part of the extensive Fabaceae family, also known as the pea family. This family also includes Ceratonia siliqua (or the carob tree) but Ashoka is only distantly related to it because it is a member of the sub family Caesalpaeniaceae, along with senna.
It is a small evergreen tree, with a slow rate of growth. For some reason, it is often confused with the mast tree, despite not looking the same. The crimson and orange flowers of ashoka resemble the ones of Grevillea robusta, sharing a similar hairy appearance caused by the long stamens of the flower clusters.
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Both the Hindus and the Buddhists consider ashoka a sacred tree, just like the peepal tree. Hindus also name it the tree of love, because of an ancient legend. They believe that Kama Devi, the god of love, placed an ashoka flower on one of his arrows in order to increase passion in humans.
For this reason, the tree is considered sacred to Kama Devi. The tree is also mentioned in Ramayana, one of the two Sanskrit epics of Hindu mythology. It also has a special meaning to Buddhists, who believe that Buddha was born under an ashoka tree. This is why it is very often planted in Buddhist temples and monasteries.
The name of the tree comes from Sanskrit, the ancient Indo-European language that is still used as a sacred language in India. The Sanskrit word of ashoka means "no grief" or "no sorrow". True to the name, the essential oil of ashoka can be used to improve the mood of lonely people.
In medicine, the plant's most important use is to treat problems specific to women. The bark and the roots, as well as the flowers, are the parts used for medical purposes. Locals believe the plant can keep women healthy and restore their youth, especially in the treatment of gynecological issues. One modern study on the ashoka leaves has also discovered a potential anti-depressive effect.
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Bark, seeds, stems, flowers.
Many health benefits of ashoka have been identified and it seems to have numerous medicinal uses. Its main effect is the regulation of blood flow, which is especially useful for women.
Ashoka can reduce the excessive bleeding caused by various diseases and irregular menstruation, as well as relieve menstrual pain and prevent miscarriage. However, its effect balances the blood circulation overall, which in turn increases the flow of urine and treats various diseases related to painful urination.
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The same effect is very valuable in the treatment of hemorrhagic dysentery, using an extract from the flower administered orally. Because it improves circulation, the blood gets purified faster and toxins are eliminated, for this reason it has been used in the rainforest as an antidote for scorpion bites and other poisons.
Flower extracts are also used in treating diabetes, while one prepared from the bark can help with piles. The plant can also relieve pain and act as a general sedative, calming the nerves. It can act at skin level, curing irritation and unpleasant sensations, as well as balancing the complexity of the skin.
Mixed with water, a powder from the crushed seeds of ashoka can eliminate kidney stones. However, the bark seems to be much more powerful. It has a big influence on menstruation and can relieve the associated pain but it must be administered with care because of its bioactive strength. Big doses of bark can even lead to abortion in pregnant women.
Adequate doses can help the uterus and prevent gynaecological problems in general. A decoct prepared from the bark is also useful in amenorrhoea or leucorrhoea.
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Several parts of the plant have medical properties, among them the stem, seeds and flowers. The highest concentration of bioactive compounds is in the bark, which can boost the activity of ovarian tissues and the endometrium. It stops internal bleeding, in particular the one caused by fibroids inside the uterus or leucorrhea.
Traditionally, a decoct from the bark is mixed with milk and given to women who bleed internally. The bark juice can also be used on its own, without mixing it with milk, for female-specific issues. Dysentery can be treated by eating the pulp of the flowers.
When stored, ashoka must be placed in closed containers. In order to keep its medicinal properties and the full bioactive strength, it should be shielded from light, air, moisture and germs.
Besides its medical benefits, the tree has very important religious significance. Buddhists believe that their founder, known as Buddha, Sakyamuni and under various other names, was born under a tree of ashoka 3000 years ago. For this reason, the tree is sacred to all Buddhists and often cultivated by them.
Hindus consider it the tree of love and link it in particular with Rama, an avatar of the god Vishnu and the hero of the most important Indian epic. When the evil king Ravanna kidnaps Rama's wife Sita, he imprisons her in a garden full of ashoka trees. This is why Hindus also plant the tree in gardens and around their temples, while the flowers are used as offering and in religious Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies.
Women from the Indian province of Bengal eat the flowers on the day of Ashok Shasthi. The water in which the flowers were kept is also considered to have the ability to protect children from sorrow, so they drink it.
Ashoka is also a part of numerous Indian folk beliefs. One such belief claims that ashoka will only bloom in a location where a woman's foot has trod, while according to another one if a young woman kicks the tree it will produce more flowers.
The tree can be found all across Indian neighbouring states, for example in the Khasi, Garo and Lushai hills. In the eastern foothills of the Himalayas, it can grow at an altitude of up to 750 m.
Ashoka has not been properly researched yet and many of the bioactive components haven't been isolated. It is known to contain various amino acids and bioflavonoids, as well as organic calcium compounds, catechol, sterol, tannin and other unidentified elements.