The Saga of the Scarlet Semal

The semal tree is in all its glory with its crown of scarlet flowers. Its gum, immature fruits, young roots and buds have several medical properties. This tree is associated with folklore and is significant in the socio-ethnic lives of people across the India-Nepal border.

Ramesh PandeyRamesh Pandey   1 March 2022 8:48 AM GMT

The Saga of the Scarlet Semal

I worked in the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh from 2005 to 2008. Working in the Terai always fascinated me. The landscape is uniquely rich in Sal forests and is home to grand and charismatic terrestrial and aquatic animals.

Though the great one horned rhinoceroses (since then reintroduced) and water buffaloes went extinct in this mosaic of grasslands, wetlands and woodlands, tigers, Asian elephants, leopards, wolf, fishing cats, five varieties of deers, gharials, otters, Gangetic dolphins, and nearly 450 types of birds, make this a significantly ecological productive landscape.

Rich landscape of Terai

The Terai landscape also has vast tracts of riverine ecosystems with oxbow lakes and leftover alluvial pains of sandy loamy soil, which favour the growth of Shisham, Semal and Khair trees. The tall scattered trees of Semal always fascinated me especially when they gregariously bloomed with red succulent flowers in the Basant season.

The Semal tree grows well and in abundance both in rural and urban areas, and watching them change colour from golden yellow to a striking red is gratifying, more so in this hectic lifestyle we follow.

The Semal tree, naturally grown in the agricultural fields, has become an additional source of income for the farmer, since its soft wood suits the making of veneers and plywood. However, it took me some time to understand how the Semal trees have been closely associated with the social and ethnic lives of the inhabitants of the landscape.

I recall carrying out a major haul of khair, sheesham and teak logs in a village called Semari Malmala. A politically strong and well-placed person had his farm house made there in the village and had stored almost 20 trucks of illegally cut wood from nearby jungles of Dharmapur and Murtiha jungles. He had a criminal history of illicit felling, encroaching, and putting pressure on forest officials to provide transit permits to transport the illegally cut wood from jungles as an agroforestry produce.

The village, Semari Malmala was situated along a stream locally known as Bhagahar, which means a leftover water body that was actually an oxbow lake. The word Bhagahar sounds more Bhojpuri than Awadhi, which is the native language of the area. There was another village situated right there on the bank of Bhagahar called Semari Ghatahi.

After my stint in Katarniaghat, I joined the Government of India and barring intermittent official visits there, I lost touch with the area.

Villages named after the Semal

But, after nearly a decade, I got the opportunity to work in the same landscape. I was posted as the Field Director of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve at Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh. In that time, I came across marketplaces, and villages with names such as Semari, Semari Bazar, Semari Purwa, and Semrahna.

I then learnt the significance of the Semal tree in the socio-ethnic lives of the people across the India-Nepal border and in the surrounding areas.

It was the Semal trees that gave villages the names such as Semari Malmala and Semari Ghatahi. The term 'Malmala' indicated the quality of fibres from the seeds of the tree, which are like malmal cottons. The term 'Ghatahi' came from the word Ghat, which refers to the riverbank.

Immature fruits of the tree are used for making expectorant, stimulant, and diuretics.

Semal is native to the South Asian landscape, including India. In fact, the taxonomical common and scientific name of Semal began with Malabar Silk cotton (Salmalia malabarica). The words Salmalia and Semal have their origin in the Sanskrit words Shalmali and Shimbal. These are large, deciduous trees with spiky greyish bark. They bear large, succulent scarlet flowers which in turn convert into large seed pods that burst into tiny seeds with cotton like fibres in them.

Metropolitan cities such as Delhi and Jaipur have a number of Semal trees that flower in March-April.

It is to be noted that the Semal (Bombax ceiba) trees are very different from the Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), though they look very similar and belong to the same family Malvaceae. Kapok trees are native to Central-South America and West Africa.

The multi-purpose semal

Communities across the continents use various parts of the trees for timber, traditional medicines, building canoes, making colours, musical instruments and toys.

The gum of the Semal is edible, and believed to have great medicinal value. Immature fruits of the tree are used for making expectorant, stimulant, and diuretics. Extracts of the young roots are used for treating dysentery. I have also heard that dry, fallen ovaries of the Semal tree are being utilised for herbal and medicinal uses in Kerala.

The tree blooms with red succulent flowers in the Basant season.

The buds of Semal are also called Dhepa in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Semar Gulla in Rohilkhand. They are used in local dishes. The tall grand trees of Semal can reach more than 50 metres in height. Its buttressed bole and thick trunk give it more of a feminine look than the masculine appearance of trees like Sal or Mahua.

The tree is also associated with folklore. A clan of the Bhil tribe in Rajasthan considers it a sacred symbol that affords protection. In many parts of the country especially in the northwest of India, the tree is used in Holika Dahan and similar rituals. It's also believed that a clan of the Meetie community in Manipur conserves the tree for traditional uses. Many folk songs are dedicated to the Semal tree in tribal regions across India.

Semal, Basant and Holi

I remember making colours with the red flower of the Semal during Holi. Its cotton fibres were stuffed into pillows. The blooming Semal is considered to be a harbinger of Basant in north India.

The trees' leaves start turning yellow around February. By the end of February, the trees shed their leaves but are bristling with flower buds. In early March the tree wears a crown of large and scarlet flowers, making it a sight to behold.

As soon as the tree begins to blossom, Barbets, Myna, Bulbuls, Parakeets, Hornbills and Tree Pies become regular visitors. The flowers filled with nectar also attract Sun Birds and bees in great numbers. Sightings of frugivorous bats are also common, which start spending time on the tree for longer periods.

Birds of prey such as the vulture also nest on the Semal trees in the Terai region. In Delhi it is the Black Kites who build their nests on Semal trees, and Lutyens Delhi has many of these old trees lining the roads. There was a time when the floor of Bikaner House Annexe, near India Gate, was carpeted with Semal flowers in the months of March-April.

The Semal tree grows well and in abundance both in rural and urban areas, and watching them change colour from golden yellow to a striking red is gratifying, more so in this hectic lifestyle we follow. The trees are decking up this month and will be flaunting their beauty for anyone who has the time to admire them.

Pandey is a member of the Indian Forest Service and was awarded the UNEP Asia Environment Enforcement Award in 2019. Views are personal.

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