The phenomenon of plant blindness and tree blindness has been well documented the world over and it’s natural for a city folks who are not living in lap of nature anymore to forget the names of the trees, to forget what the leaves could be used for, to forget what the fruits could be used for and unfortunately it’s a problem we are all suffering from and that why during this lockdown I decided to start this unique initiative which I’m hoping I could continue, become a student again and learn about these trees once again in this new article called Talking Trees (part -3).
So, who’s going to help me navigate this mysterious world of trees? Well apart from that World Wide Web we all know; I’m also going to be using pictures from this wonderful website called Flowers of India which has documented a large proportion of the flora that we actually find in our country as well as this book “Jungle Trees of Central India by Pradip Kishen”. This is one of the most wonderful field guides I’ve gone through and this is something I’m doing as a revisit. I’ve left the link of where you can actually purchase this book as well as the link of the website Flowers of India at the end of this article, should you like to at any moment refer to the same.
KANHA TIGER RESERVE
Spread out over two thousand square kilometres yet again a very large tiger reserve is actually located in the Satpura Maikal landscape. The Maikal is actually the Maikal hills which are the eastern most part of the Satpura mountain range and with a different landscape, the forest type changes. Once again the forest type is actually dictated by the availability of water and since in this part of Madhya Pradesh the rainfall tends to be a little higher. This leads to a different type of forest, a moist deciduous forest and that too is actually broken down into two parts- one is a mixed forest where you will see a diversity of species including the ubiquitous bamboo as well as a moist deciduous Sal forest.
SAL or Shorea Robusta
Now a confession straight up first, you will just love being out on a safari drive in a Sal forest and it’s really difficult to explain in words what makes it so special but a few of those things would be related to how grand this tree looks because it does grow very tall in excess of probably around 20 to 25 meters in central India. In fact at the base of the Himalaya it can actually grow even much taller
around 45 meters or so and the grand appearance of this tree is definitely a major factor. Apart from that as well Sal actually has very few associate species that are able to thrive along with it. It is a resource intensive tree so pretty much where you actually see Sal, you may often see pure stands of just the Sal trees and imagine that these tall trees looking as if it’s a grand cathedral that you’re entering through.
There is also so much symbolism with this tree for example the tree’s name actually comes Sal from Shal and that means house in Sanskrit basically because the timber of this tree was used for making houses. Additionally it is the state tree of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. You just can’t stop being in awe of this tree can you? but once you’ve enjoyed the view of that grand canopy, let’s take a closer look at this particular tree using the same four characters we do every time:
2. SAL LEAF
The leaves are actually an important character on this tree because Sal is actually what we can say is an almost evergreen tree because in many parts of India it is actually evergreen and you’ll always see it in green leaves. But Sal actually does shed its leaves as well and in central India you may see this phenomena. So the leaves usually are dark green, broad, oval shaped with a pointy tip. You’ll also notice that there are veins on the leaf as well which are parallel to each other basically and the leaves are shed usually if they are being shed here in central India, they will be shed somewhere around February or March and pretty much in April or May the new leaf would sprout so again you’ll see this tree leafless very rarely.
2. SAL BARK
The bark of this tree is usually greyish or ruddy brown and as the tree gets older you’ll notice these vertical lines on the trunk of the tree as well which are known as fissures so that’s something that you can check out when you look at the bark of the Sal.
3. SAL FLOWER
The flowers are these creamy white flowers hanging in these bunches loose clusters and Pradip Kishen actually has a very nice analogy for these flowers. He refers to them as drops of milk which are frozen and that’s because the petals are twisted. So yeah you’ll actually see as if it’s a splash of milk which is actually frozen and that’s a wonderful way to actually remember these flowers. Additionally, the flowers also come out during the month of March or April.
4. SAL FRUIT
The fruit comes in basically during the June or July period and the fruit tends to be in a winged shape so it’s an ovoid shape which is roughly a brown colour and usually it’s just one single seed that pops out of this tree.
USES OF SAL
Now Sal actually has a lot of connections with our culture and perhaps the first thing that you will come to know about Sal when you are actually visiting on a safari is that people will tell you they are responsible for the railway network in our country. So that’s right, railway sleepers that are actually put on all of those tracks all across our country. Millions and millions of cubic feet that’s all thanks to Sal. So that’s all Sal wood that you actually see. Additionally the seed oil that is also derived from this particular tree. The butter is also used for cooking and is also a substitute for cocoa butter. That’s right it’s also used in the manufacture of chocolate though the butter itself or the oil itself does require a fair bit of processing to actually be used as a substitute for cocoa butter. Due to the size of the leaves as well they are tend to be used as leaf plates or bowls in many rural parts of India as well but other than that the timber that is actually extracted from this tree tends to be a little difficult to season and then use in a variety of different applications. It tends to be a little rigid and that is why usually more of the timber uses are for making frames etc
Unfortunately, Sal is on the decline more or less through most of India but particularly in central India and the reason of course you might have heard is the habitat loss or deforestation but another major reason this tree has lost a lot of ground is due to an infestation by an insect called the “Sal bora beetle”. Now the life cycle of this insect goes something like this- the beetle or the adult form actually gets attracted by the scent of that resin, the sap that oozes out of the tree and when they mate they then lay the eggs on the salary basically and then the larvae actually burrow inside the tree and unfortunately what happens is usually the Sal is able to withstand the attacks up to a certain extent but as the infestation gets worse as it spreads to more and more trees and the larvae actually continued to grow. They then bore straight into the heartwood of the tree and unfortunately over a large period of time you can have a huge die off of all of these trees. Now Sal bora beetles of course have been around for very long and of course the forest does continue to survive these onslaughts but in some years the attack is particularly bad and is classified as an epidemic. In fact we’ve had one such epidemic just as recently as 2015 and that is why a large proportion of Sal forests have also been lost due to this particular attack but there is hope. There are new methods now being introduced where you can actually continue to save the tree and you don’t have to cut off a very large proportion of trees to stop the infection. There are other ways you can now conserve the tree as well while ensuring that the infection doesn’t spread too widely.
SEMAL/ RED COTTON SILK TREE (Bombax Ceiba )
Bombax Ceiba or Semal actually is not just restricted to moist deciduous forest, it is also found in other types of forest as well but this particular tree actually does quite well in moist conditions. In fact, alluvial soil is where it actually prefers and grows to its maximum growth and when the tree is young it has those spikes that can be seen on its trunk but when this tree grows older those spikes or those sprinkles fall away and then the buttresses or you know the trunk or the base of the tree tends to get quite thick.
1. SEMAL LEAF
The leaf structure which is like the five fingers of palm. So this particular shape when we are actually talking about leaves is called digitate because of course these are our digits and the leaves are also shaped like the fingers on a hand and that’s what you also see on this leaf and the leaflet or the centre one that you usually see is the first, furthest away from the leaf stock and also tends to be the longest. Again, all of them are usually with pointy tips.
2. SEMAL BARK
The bark of this particular tree, as mentions earlier, has those spikes when they are actually young. This is presumably for the trees protection from heavy browsing. So that’s one thing that you’ll notice about the bark of the tree but usually as the tree gets older these spikes tend to fall off and in fact you will see fissures similar to the style that we actually talked about vertical lines.
3. SEMAL FLOWER
Now the more recognisable parts of this tree is those beautiful flowers. Bright red usually on most occasion coral red but they may also be yellow, orange and even sometimes pale white. So that’s something that you’ll also notice for this particular tree. The flowers are very prominent, in fact, they come out before the leaf so that’s when you’ll actually see the flowers are coming out during the months of January to March and at this time if you’re on safari or you’re on a walk and you see a Bombax Ceiba, just wait there because it is a bird watching delight for you to be near a Semal because you’ll see a diversity of birds. You’ll see Bulbuls and Sunbirds and Flowerpeckers and Barbets and Leafbirds. It’s amazing to see the level of activity on this tree because they all come to feed on the nectar of those flowers and in the process of that some of them even help in pollination. Apart from that, though the flowers are also pollinated by bats as well so there’s pollination happening during the night as well.
4. SEMAL FRUIT
Somewhere in the months between of March or April you’ll see the fruit coming out and it’s this pouched sort of fruit. Pouch shape with these vertical lines and the most recognisable part, it’s when the fruit opens and you actually see the reason for the name of this tree. The silk or the cotton inside the silk cotton is what of course gives this tree its name and there you can see this white fibre inside of course with the black seeds inside and this particular silk cotton of course has some applications as well.
USES OF SEMAL
The cotton silk found inside the fruit is used to fill pillows etc and apart from that, though it’s a little short for it to be weaved or spun so it’s usually not used for that but the tree also has medicinal uses. it is used in the curing of diarrhoea and other ailments as well. It is also supposed to have some efficacy in treating infertility or impotency particularly the root of this tree. However this does need to be scientifically validated. Apart from that, this particular tree, the wood tends to be used sometimes in making a material for canoes etc. So it does fairly well in water as well. Also, the timber is pretty light so there’s not much use for it for making houses or furniture and is tend to be used most for match boxes or matchsticks or any other light application.
Link to the Flowers of India website: http://www.flowersofindia.net/
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