The PTS Pali-English dictionary relates the Pali word madhuka to the tree Bassia longifolia, better known today by the alternative scientific name of Madhuca longifolia. Madhuka is a fast growing tropical tree to 20 metres, found in the central and north Indian plains and forests.
Commonly known today as Mahwa or Mahua or Iluppai (Tamil), this evergreen or semi-evergreen tree is adapted to arid environments and is prominent in tropical mixed deciduous forests in in the Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat and Orissa.
Madhuka has many culinary, medical and practical uses. It is cultivated in warm and humid regions for its oily seeds (20 to 200 kg annually per tree), flowers and wood. The oil is solid at room temperature is used to manufacture soap and detergents, and as a fuel oil. As a vegetable butter the oil is used in sweets and chocolates. The seed cakes obtained after extraction of oil make very good fertilizer. The leaves provide food for the moth Antheraea paphia, which produces tassar silk (tussah), a wild silk of commercial importance in India.
The edible flowers are very sweet and are a food item for some tribal peoples. Madhuka flowers are also used to produce an alcoholic drink considered essential for tribal men and women during celebrations. However, Tamil tradition cautions that excessive use of this flower may result in mental imbalance.
In traditional medicine, the flowers are used to make a medicinal syrup. The oil is used to treat skin diseases, rheumatism and headache. It is also a laxative and considered useful in treating constipation, piles and haemorrhoids. Because of its many uses, the madhuka tree is considered holy by many forest-dwelling tribal communities who are keen to see the tree conserved.