Seed Silk

The seeds of the silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra, formerly Bombax ceiba) are encased in a cocoon of silky fibre that drifts in the winds. The trees pierce the jungle canopy, and, from a height of 50 meters, shed their silk through the Manas National Park.

We’d reached too late to see the cloud of red flowers which would have hung over the canopy a couple of weeks before. The fruits had developed by the time of the spring equinox, and now leaves in the undergrowth were all that stood between the seed and the ground.

Golden flowers fill your eyes

Green and gold caught my eyes as we drove in the damp heat of the early afternoon through Manas National Park. It may be early spring in astronomical terms, with the days still getting longer, but as seasons are counted in these eastern foothills of Assam, it was high summer. Monsoon was less than a month away. Most trees had already shed their spring leaves, and had begun to flower. But was this the flower of the tree?

I had to tear my eyes away from the lovely flowers to take in a larger picture. Did the leaves and flower actually grow from the tree? They were carried on rather thin woody stalks. But would such thin stalks ever grow directly from the main trunk of a tree? Normally a trunk branches multiple times before you come to leaf-bearing or flower-bearing stalks.

Pull back a little further. It becomes clearer. No the flowers do not belong to the tree. It is a silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra, earlier Bombax ceiba). In this place it is late in its flowering season. Some of the smaller trees are still flowering, some are fruiting, some are still releasing their lovely silky parachutes into the air, but giants like this are past all that and are already prepared for the monsoon. The flowers are orchids growing over the tree. A little search, and you find that they are golden-flowered dendrobium (Dendrobium chrysanthum). Orchids are said not to harm the trees they grow on. They have green leaves, so they produce their own sugars. Their roots are said to penetrate only the bark of the tree. It is said that they don’t tap into the wood. I wonder then where they get water from? Roots of plants which grow into soil search widely for water. It seems that orchids specialize in pulling moisture from the air.

I pull back further. The whole jungle is full of trees carrying various kinds of orchids. Many are flowering. Something clicks into place. I’ve seen flowering orchids in the Himalayas during winter, when it often rains. Now, here in the plains below the mountains, I see them just before the monsoon. They flower when the air is damp. Most plants require a lot of stored sugar and water for their flowers and fruits. That’s what is happening here, in this hot damp place. The flowers will fruit and produce their wind-borne seeds at about the time the monsoon winds begin to blow. On this vast scale, I begin to admire the small orchids, the large trees, and the vast jungle and the climate they are in. They shape each other.

Trees, forest

Manas National Park, Assam

Kadam, cinnamon tree, red Kamala, baghnola, elephant rope tree, elephant apple tree, giant crepe-myrtle, black myrobalan, bahera, pithraj, jamun, purple Bauhinia, Syzygium Oblatum, silk cotton tree, petharai, akshi, patana oak, ejar, white teak, trumpet tree …

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?

The six seasons: 2

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.

Kaziranga: a managed forest

The famous grasslands of Kaziranga are not a self-maintaining system. This fact came as a shock to me. I’d thought of it as a nature preserve, where the balance is naturally maintained. I should have been aware of this, since the rhino-springback, for which it is famous, is a success story more than a century in the making. Nor can it be entirely natural, since it lies on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

On one of our drives through the park we reached the banks of the Brahmaputra. A shallow slope led down to the deceptively low waters. In recent decades the park has lost almost 14% of its area to erosion from the annual flooding of the river. Flood plains have their own ecology, which is often lost when rivers are dammed, or other “flood control” meaures are taken. However, the flooding of the Brahmaputra is a danger to the animals in the park.

We saw an ameliorative measure being taken. A few massive earth movers and trucks were going back and forth between the banks of a stream and a spot inside the woods. When we passed it, we saw an enormous earthen plateau being built up artificially. We asked our jeep driver what this was for. “Refuge area for animals,” he replied. With more questions we could tease out a detailed answer from him: the forest department was constructing an immense high ground where the animals could retreat in case of flooding. This was the first major piece of ongoing engineering we noticed inside the park.

Another thread was not at all obvious. I saw silk cotton trees with fruits and seed pods hanging on them. Many had fallen off the tree and burst open (see photo above). The winds were lifting the silk parachutes off the ground and wafting it about. It took many conversations for me to realize that this was a problem. Apparently, give the large areas of grassland, the seeds often fall on fertile ground. As a result, there is a spurt in the growth of these trees, leading to a shrinking of grasslands.

The solution that the forest department has adopted is to identify patches where the trees have taken hold, clear the larger trees and set a small controlled fire to kill the shoots. We saw little circles of blackened stumps rather often in a relatively small area. It would have left us mystified if we hadn’t had that conversation.

Many years ago I’d read a short story about a bridge being built on Jupiter by tele-operated robots, and disaster after disaster being averted by some quick action. Kaziranga reminded me of that. It has been one of the successes of wildlife conservation in India: with the rhino, elephant, numerous birds, several species of deer, and tigers being brought back from the edge of local extinction. That story ended badly, with several problems striking together. One hopes that Kaziranga can work things out better.