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?
Summer is the time of mangoes. In the part of the country where I grew up, the decisive beginning of grishma (summer) would be the brief week or two when the house would fill up with seemingly unending baskets of lychee. But they would be over before I could ever anticipate it, and suddenly one day the house would have the first mangoes of the summer. There are almost no lychees in Mumbai, and the summer starts with the delightful apoos (alphonso). The other delightful aspect of this, the most terrible of seasons, are the flowering trees. My favourite is the red of the silk cotton flower (Bombax ceiba), named after the silky feathers which waft through the burning air in May, carrying seeds from the burst fruits. On the other side of the road, peeking out from behind a building I can spot another favourite, the red flowers of the gul mohar (Delonix regia, the flame of the forest). The easiest to photograph from my window are the copperpods (Peltophorum pterocarpum, yellow flame) which line the roads around us. Nearby, and invisible to me now, is a jacaranda tree which must be in flower. None of these popular road-liners are native to Mumbai. The first rains of the next season will knock all these flowers off the trees, and for a few days the roads will be carpeted with vivid patches of colour decaying into mush.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now I can see the morning’s light moving along my kitchen wall. A couple of weeks ago the sun, as it rose, would burn me as I made my morning’s tea. Now that spot in my kitchen is safe, and the sun’s first light falls on the southern wall. The cool land breeze of the morning stops earlier now, and the equally cool sea breeze also sets in earlier. The sound of the birds has changed; perhaps they have moved to different parts of the garden, and someone else in getting the early morning concert that I would a few weeks back. In Mumbai you feel the summer more by an increase in the humidity as the sun warms up the ocean. I can feel it already.