It never ceases to amaze me how the mood of changing seasons reflects so well in nature. As winter recedes, and it warms up, nature seems to celebrate the onset of spring in many ways. One of nature’s most spectacular displays of emotion are flowering trees.
In the cold season, many trees gradually shed their leaves. By January, many of them are leafless. Come the warmer months of February and March, these trees begin to flower. The barren, leafless trees flaunt their flowers. It’s almost as though the trees are saying, “We don’t want the leaves to hide our flowers; let the flowers bask in their own glory” Among the most vivid displays of this attitude comes from the red silk cotton tree (Bombax ceiba). Locally called Semal, this magnificent tree is adorned with flowers in spring. The flower consists of five similar petals which can be red or orange. The petals are thick and juicy, and emerge from oval brown coloured buds. Almost leafless, the flowering tree dots the horizon with its lovely red flowers silhouetted against the blue sky. Give me red, nature seems to say.
In the flowering season, the tree is a hotbed of activity. Many birds such as bulbuls, drongos, mynas, and parakeets love to feed on the thick juicy petals of the flower. Friendly quarrels break out amongst the birds in search for the tastiest morsel. Sunbirds flit from one flower to another, feeding on its nectar. Squirrels scamper about to partake in the revelry. Occasionally, monkeys decide to join the fun, and flex their muscles, chasing away other smaller creatures — they want the flowers for themselves!
As summer approaches, and it becomes warmer, the flowers wilt and fall, and the area below the tree is carpeted with red flowers. Large brown seedpods remain on the tree. When these seedpods ripen and burst, silky white fibers, to which are attached the trees seeds waft down from the tree. The tree uses the wind to disperse its seeds. These white silky fibres are often used to stuff pillows and mattresses, and this give the tree its common name — silk cotton.
A close look at the tree will reveal that its branches have some conical thorns. There are numerous thorns on the tree when it is a sapling. The thorns help the tree protect itself from foraging animals such as cows and goats. When the tree grows bigger, it no longer has the need for these thorns, and hence most of them are shed.
The red silk cotton tree grows along roads, in gardens and the open forest. Through the months of February and March, keep your eyes open for the spectacular display of the flowering Semal. Stand under the tree and observe its lovely red flowers. If you are lucky, a flower may just plop down on your head even as you stand there.