Striking five-petalled pink flowers on nearly leafless trees stand against a clear blue sky on a mid-November evening, stealing the gaze of almost every visitor that walks beneath it.
Around this time of the year, Delhi’s floss silk trees demand attention – showing off flowers that can be spotted from a distance and leave you with little choice but to stand and stare.
With the advent of winter every year, fallen pink petals pepper the grounds beneath Sunder Nursery’s floss silk trees. From the entrance to the nursery, near the Central Axis, the first tree to come to view is an old floss silk tree with a wide-spreading trunk. On closer look, the fallen flowers have brown-flecked ivory throats and long stamina columns. The palmately compound leaves have five to seven leaves on a long leaf stalk. Some trees here have roots that wrap themselves around the trunk.
There are 22 floss silk trees in Sunder Nursery. Azim Bagh, a section of the garden that lies near the Mughal-era Azimganj Serai, has two small ponds of water and a gateway-like structure that has the high walls of the serai in the background. Floss silk trees flank Azim Bagh in neat rows, and some of them are still in full bloom, one with flowers in a lighter shade of pink.
The trees here are younger than the ones near the Central Axis, set apart by their distinctive trunk. The bark is bright green in young trees. As it gives way to grey, streaks of bright green are still visible along the bark, forming eye-catching patterns of grey and green. Grey thorns, spiky and conical, dot the young trunks but are shed as the tree grows older. It is said that the thick thorns protect the tree from climbers in the Amazon such as monkeys that damage the barks.
The tree is commonly known as ‘kurayjia’ by gardeners in Delhi. It is also known as ‘Resham Rui’, for the cotton obtained from its fruits are used for making pillows for children. The wood has been used for making river canoes, while its bark has been used to make rope. Some of Sunder Nursery’s floss silk trees have badges tied to the bark, identifying them.
Pradip Krishen writes in his book Trees of Delhi that the floss silk trees (Ceiba speciosa) are native to South America – Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay – and were introduced to Delhi in the 1950s. The tree mostly flowers in September and October, after the rains.