The golden flames of the campaka combined with the red fire of the aśoka roast the hearts of lovers like meat on a spit. Or so writes Māgha as he describes vasanta in the Śiśupālavadha. In a more benign light, the yellow-orange flowers – which give the tree the names hema-puṣpaka (‘golden-flowered’) and dīpa-puṣpa (‘lamp-flowered’) – might be thought closer to the soft ‘apricot’ hues of modern home furnishing.
The elaborate flower of the campaka – which the Amarakośa tells us is called kalikā, although this simply means ‘bud’ and can be used in the context of many plants – is worn by women as a garland or in their hair, both for its looks and for its smell. The shape of the flower allows one poet an inspired upamā:
सज्जं मषीभाण्डमिव स्मरस्य॥
Indindirair nirbhara-garbham īṣa-
d-unmeṣac-campaka-puṣpam āsīt |
sajjaṃ maṣī-bhāṇḍam iva smarasya ||
The campaka flower, just beginning to open, its inner bud filled with bees, seemed to be the golden ink pot of Smara the god of love, readied for the pen-stroke of his edict.
Verse 1659 in the Subhashitavali, attributed to Karṇikāramaṅkha
Apart from hemapuṣpaka and dīpapuṣpa, the campaka’s only other Sanskrit synonym is cāmpeya (which can also mean ‘gold’). Similarly its names in modern Indian languages are all variations upon the theme: Hindi – campā, campakā; Bengali – svarna campā, campā, campak, cāpā; Tamil – cempukā, ceṉpakam, cempakam; Malayalam – campakam, cempaka. Identified as Michelia Campaka, in English it is called champak or golden champa.
There are at least two other campakas in Sanskrit, the bhūmi-campakā or bhū-campakā (both of which mean ‘ground-campaka’) and the śveta-campaka (white campaka) which seems to be the same as the kśīra-campaka (kṣīra means ‘milk’ or ‘sap’). Neither is identified as the Michelia Campaka. The first is the Kaempferia Rotunda, or Indian crocus, a shrub. The second is the Plumeria Rubra or Pogodo Tree. Modern botany thus doesn’t seem to connect the three plants; but perhaps the botanists and poets of ancient India did.
In the Pandanus database of Indian plants, it is described as:
An evergreen tree up to 30m high, yellow to orange fragrant flowers, aggregate dark fruits, grows wild all over India, also cultivated.