Down in jungleland: The Tree of Life

Summer offers a short window for the bottlebrush tree to come alive in all its seasonal glory.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published:April 16, 2017 12:00 am
tree, nature, birds, trees, trees in gardens, gardens, tree tops, trees forest, forest, deforestation, afforestation, save trees, plant more trees, tree stories, indian express, indian express news My name is red: Summer is when the bottlebrush tree comes alive with a burst of scarlet and gold. From purple sun birds, tailorbirds, bees to the rose-ringed parakeet, the visitor list is a long one. (Source: Ranjit Lal)

Bent over like an old man with a bad back (in this case, caused by a moron in a Contessa who banged into it one evening many years ago when it was still a stripling), the Australian bottlebrush outside my bedroom window looks somewhat depressed through most of the year. Its long leaves droop and it has a somewhat (most un-Aussie like) hangdog air about it. In fact, it’s also called the “weeping bottlebrush”, which sort of conveys the message perfectly. The long, tapering leaves are evergreen, but, most of the time, they’re not a vibrant green, more a dull brownish-green. Some spindly branches don’t sport leaves at all and look like broomsticks whose binding has come loose. But, apparently, the tree can tolerate high levels of pollution, so may as well feel right at home in cities like Delhi.

For the most part, it’s not vastly popular with birds as a place to hang out or build a home in. It’s used more as a brief stopover as they fly from tree to tree or into the giant bougainvillea creeper swarming up the building. But yes, there’s quite a variety that passes through, and tailorbirds, bulbuls and white-eyes do search for tiny insects and spiders in the branches and under the leaves. Jungle babblers hang around, sometimes, lining up tightly on the branches to ecstatically preen each other, glowering away to glory. Every November or so, for some mysterious reason, rufous tree-pies visit, musically asking each other for ‘thocolate!’ And large jungle crows will tug at the leaves and spindly twigs, and fly off with them. Collared doves simply pick up fallen twiglets, saving themselves the embarrassment of an undignified tug-of-war. Some of the other visitors that have briefly stopped over include the white-throated kingfisher, which usually visits in February, the shikra, which may appear suddenly any time in order to shock the smaller birds, the black-rumped flameback (ex-golden-backed woodpecker) and grey hornbills on their way to the big neem trees in the (Nicholson) cemetery next door. Squirrels race up and down the branches, and headlong meetings on a narrow branch cause no collisions. One squirrel will simply go upside down and under, and pass the other. Of course, on several occasions, it will get back top-side and then chase the lunatic that made it take such an undignified evasive action, chattering indignantly and flicking its tail threateningly.

In winter, the tree probably looks its worst: completely desiccated, its leaves look tired and miserable. But around February, you see them: small clusters of fresh, light green leaves bursting forth with optimism. By early March the tree is brimming with buds and, by mid-March, the tree is unrecognisable, covered from head to toe in scarlet and gold, as the blooms burst forth like fireworks. Apparently, the actual flowers are tiny and insignificant — pale yellow, growing in spikes, their petals even dropping off. What you see are the stamens — sinfully scarlet, tipped with gold, arranged along these spikes so the cluster looks like a bottlebrush. And, what lies at the base of these stamens is sweet, very sweet, and who knows, just a
little intoxicating.

For many birds, it’s a party invite impossible to resist. The most excited and shrill, and amongst the first to turn up, are purple sunbirds: the dudes decked up in midnight-blue spangles like rockstars, their girls more demure in yellow and beige (who must be thinking about the families they’re about to raise). Small parties of solemn white-eyes jingle amongst the branches, probably helping themselves to nectar as well as the tiny insects humming around. Bees shimmer and hum around every bloom, making you wonder what bottlebrush honey tastes like. The tiny-tot tailorbirds shout exuberantly at 120 decibels as they hop around, eagerly snapping up high-protein spiders. And the rose-ringed parakeets, who normally tear apart the skies with their shrieks, arrive, maintaining radio silence. They vanish uncannily amid the leaves: their plumage a perfect match and even their great nutcracker bills are the same scarlet shade as the flowers. They clamber clumsily through the branches, plucking the flowers off and gorging on the nectar, before dropping the bloom to the ground and moving on to the next one (parakeets are known to maintain total silence while raiding major orchards too). This year, for a change, the monkeys seemed to have been banned from attending, and astonishingly, they didn’t gatecrash either.

Then, within a week or 10 days, the party begins to wind down. Those scarlet blooms look tired and darken. There’s a lot of sweeping up to be done beneath the tree. Of course, the bottlebrush is not the only tree throwing a party at this time of the year. Amongst others, the giant silk cotton or semal will have already partied hard by now. There’s some serious drinking that takes place on these giants, as each bloom is said to distill half a peg of nectar per day which, for a bird the size of a parakeet, would probably be the equivalent of half a bottle of the finest! Count the number of flowers on a tree and you’ll get an idea of the scale of the bacchanalia! The delicate jacarandas will have put on their frilly mauve dresses, the Easter trees will be coming into their own, as will the coral tree and the dhak. In the weeks ahead, the laburnums and golmohurs will be getting set to make their neck of the woods (or city) dazzle.

It may be summer, but for many trees, it’s time to sizzle!

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.

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