Equinoctal tree

Bombax ceiba, the silk cotton tree, (শিমলু in Ahom, শিমুল in Bangla, सेमल in Hindi) is the perfect symbol of spring. It sheds its leaves in winter, and produces red flowers in spring before it sprouts new leaves. In May, as the season of vasant shades into the heat of grishma in the northern plains of India, the fruits of silk cotton burst open and release the seeds centered in feathery gliders of silky thread that give the tree its name. That is a memory from my childhood; I haven’t been in the appropriate place and time since I finished my school.

So, when we came down from the middle heights to the plains, I was impressed by this treebeard, a giant standing as tall as the canopy on the higher slope on the far side of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway track. It could have been 50 meters in height; I could reach a bit more than a fourth of the way around the trunk with my arms. The buttressing roots reached above my head. The only way I could take a photo was to make a vertical panorama. The tree grows above the canopy in order to catch the wind it needs for seed dispersal.

The wide dispersion across India of this native of rainforests made me believe that its origins are South or South-East Asian. Unfortunately, I could see very little study of its genomics and biogeography from this region. There has been intensive study in China in recent years, where it was imported in historical times from northern Vietnam (its flower is a symbol of the city of Guangzhou). I wonder when it reached Australia; it is pre-Colonial. What is the native Australian lore about it?

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

11 thoughts on “Equinoctal tree”

      1. They weren’t flowering at the time. We were told they were Ceiba Pentandra or Silk Cotton trees in English. There are also smaller ones with thinner cascading roots which I understand are strangler figs, Ficus Gibbosa.

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      2. Ceiba pentandra grows in the Caribbean, and South and Central Americas. It may have been brought to South East Asia, but since there is already a different Ceiba species thriving in this region, at first thought it would seem that the new species may not take over.

        In this instance, because of the cascading roots I always used to think they are a species of strangler fig, until someone more knowledgeable and better traveled than me gave me the ID. Actually, now checking on Google, I find that Wikipedia also gives this ID for the famous Ta Prong tree: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetrameles

        As for this article, when I talk of the silk cotton tree I do mean Bombax ceiba, which would be different from all these other three 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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