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Painting the town red with the silk cotton tree

| Updated on April 17, 2020 Published on April 16, 2020

The silk cotton tree’s blooms light up urban neighbourhoods, attracting birds and animals alike

I have vivid childhood memories of the silk cotton (semal) tree. I was barely 10 years old when we moved houses from a secure, manicured factory colony to a new housing area set against the backdrop of an open landscape of abandoned agricultural fields. There were few markers nearby, apart from the Mumbai-Pune railway track lined with semal trees. It was only much later, as an enthusiastic birdwatcher, that I realised that you could spend hours watching the birds coming to these large leafless trees whose red flowers were like bird magnets.

The semal, as it’s known in north India, is undoubtedly one of the most majestic trees of the subcontinent. As winter sets in, it abandons its leaves and is soon completely bare, with its rough, thorny trunk and circular branches giving it an impressive look.

Buds start forming as spring sets in, and they burst into stunning red (sometimes orange, and even yellow) flowers, completely taking over the tree and dominating the landscape. Birds come for the flower — mainly its nectar, but also its petals, and treasures such as the insects that get attracted to the nectar. With the occasional rains during this season, water gets stored in the small cup-shaped flower, quenching the thirst of its visitors.

Researchers in Amravati, Maharashtra, found that a cool 81 species frequented the semal to feed, nest and to roost.

The stately tree has proved to be an important nesting and roosting place for critically endangered bird species such as the greater adjutant stork and vultures.

The flowers don’t go unnoticed by mammals either. A study on this tree in Rajasthan showed that 11 species of mammals, including macaques, langurs and giant, flying and palm squirrels, feed on the flowers. The fallen flowers attract deer, antelopes, bears and porcupines. As night sets in, bats come to feed on the nectar. The birds and bats help pollinate the flower. This performance repeats itself across the semal’s range, from the Himalayas and southwards to other parts of the country. It is undoubtedly a keystone species.

Humans are not far behind in utilising the semal tree’s produce. Its flowers are used to make natural colours for Holi, its fruit is pickled and its cotton made into pillows. The tree is seen to possess moderate sulphur oxide (SO) absorption capacity and is, therefore, recommended for roadside plantations in polluted urban areas.

In mega-cities such as Delhi, the semal is an urban-defying phenomenon. Nature enthusiasts are taken aback every year by its absolutely stunning flowering performance against the urban backdrop of the Capital.

Peeyush Sekhsaria is a Delhi-based amateur birdwatcher

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Published on April 16, 2020