A common sight before the onset of spring through the mighty Maikal or Satpura range or through pristine Aravallis of Delhi, is that of trees sprouting with splashes of red, orange and vermillion beauties. A case in point is the moist and dry deciduous forest of central India, inhabiting trees like Semal (Cotton), Palash(Flame of the Forest), and Coral tree varieties.
It is fascinating to note is how ‘Palash’ paints this countryside with its bright orange inflorescence while ‘Cotton’, ‘Coral’ and Bottlebrush’ add a dash of red to the otherwise dry cover of the forest during February- March. And, as soon as it is summer, these shades of red get replaced with resplendent yellows of the grand ‘Amaltas’ or intoxicating ‘Mahua’ – all across the deciduous forests of central and northern India. I was fortunate to observe this pattern and language of flowers, during my field escapades in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
While Coral and Bottle brush are relatively scanty, and are more propitious to the suburbs of India, Palash and Semal are more typical of mofussil realities, hinting at the inherent relevance of biodiversity in today’s times, that of nature’s own checks and balances evident with a riot of colors emerging from within a leafless skeletal jungle- typical of the dry, deciduous season.
The cotton tree, botanically known as Bombax Ceiba, is typically known for its beautiful red color flowers. Standing tall in all its might, Semal is a real feast to the eyes especially, when it transcends into a feasting habitat of birds- big and small, thriving on its nectar rich florets.
The trees are leafless during this season in central India typical of the deciduous prototype, and shed mature leaves at this time. The locally available flowers are gorgeous to engage in art of sorts. Used in floral decor and traditional rituals during Mahashivratri, Semal hints at the onset of spring.
The other variety of Semal/Cotton tree (however off-white in color), is more suited for its nomenclature. Locally known as Kapok, and botanically named as Ceiba, the cotton like fiber obtained from this tree is universally extracted, and used in duvets, mattresses, and other cloth furnishing.
Belonging to the same species, Kapok and Semal are laden with sugary nectar attracting a variety of birds and bees in the forest. These fibrous flowers, could give a boost to community groups like Self-Help Groups, engaging in sustainable small businesses, thus contributing to livelihood generation, and development of rural areas utilizing the concept of effective usage of natural capital, abundant in rural peripheries of India.
These cotton tree flowers, however, aren’t just limited to the countryside. The city of Delhi is blessed with many of these varieties, flowering in red and orange during this season. A ride in the Delhi Metro during the day through Central belt of the city is testimony to this ‘survival’ tree’s existence in the middle of the city’s hustle bustle, and sprawling concrete.
A very common tree found in tropical, sub tropical regions. Christened with several names such as Tiger Claw or Coral, this tree is largely known for its ornamental quotient and is often planted in open spaces. The spectacular bright red clusters flower, while the tree is
deciduous- black and red seeds of which facilitate traditional rituals and worshiping in many parts of the country.
Flame of the forest/ Butea Monosperma
Palash, which paints the crown of deciduous cover of central India with its bright orange parrot beaked flowers, are the most common to spot in the forests of central India. Used by communities to prepare yellow herbal color on Holi, this flower has a historical and cultural legacy in history, art, literature and fiction. Ranging from Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Ore Grihobhashi’ to finding its mention in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, Palash is in its full glory, just before Holi, and is emblematic of prosperity, according to many indigenous communities.
Jungles of Pench, Kanha, Satpura, and districts of Hoshangabad and Betul are particularly rich in this dazzling ornament of nature.
Views expressed are personal.