Young World

Snow in summer

Snowflakes in bloom: The white tufts of cotton have medicinal value. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar  

Sometimes, in summer, you can find white cottony tufts floating in the air. If you are lucky to grab one, you can use it as a bookmark.

Feather light and soft white in texture, these tufts can be seen in abundance in open grasslands. They are aplenty and when they cover the ground, they resemble snowflakes from a distance. These fibrous tufts come from the Bombax ceiba also known as the ‘silk- cotton tree’ or ‘ Semal’.

Beautiful sight

During summer the spherical brown fruits burst allowing the wind to carry the fibrous seeds that germinate once they fall on the ground. The tree attracts birds and one can see monkeys swinging on its branches and plucking fruits while the cottony tufts fall.

In India, it is planted in parks and on the roadside because of its beautiful red flowers that bloom in March and April.

“The cottony tuft is actually the seed fibre that serves as a parachute mechanism for seed dispersal, which enables the seed to float in the air,” explains S.K. Borthakur, Professor, Plant Taxonomy and Ethnobotany, Department of Botany, Guwahati University.  “The trees grow well in sandy soil in open areas such as forest fringes, river banks and open grasslands. You will never find these trees in dense forest areas. It needs plenty of sunlight and has an open canopy formation. The tree grows in abundance in Assam and in the North East and is limited to northern Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar,” he adds.

These solitary trees are a delight to watch. When in bloom, the trees bear spectacular brick red, yellowish red or white flowers depending on the soil.

“The flowers are used in manufacturing ‘ dhoop’ or incense sticks. The tufts are used as filling for pillows and mattresses. They are preferred over cotton as they don’t stick and form lumps like cotton does,” says Prof. Borthakur. “The spines on the bark of growing plants have medicinal value while the timber is used in construction to make ceilings and mats in Assam.  The tree has many uses.”

If you come across a floating tuft, do remember the ‘ semal’ tree that packs in a lot of uses.

Common name: Semal, Kapok, Silk cotton tree

Scientific name: Bombax ceiba

Found in: Open grasslands, forest fringes and river beds

Uses: Flowers find their way in incense sticks, seed fibre is used as pillow and mattress fillings, bark is used in medicines, timber is utilised for making ceilings.

Activity for you: Keep a few pages of scrap book for the silk cotton tree. Take photographs of the tree, if you find one, along various seasons. Read up on the tree and share it with your class.

Did you know?

In Hong Kong, during the flowering season, the semal flowers are used to make a type of tea.

The roots and gum of the tree are coolants.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 7:41:19 AM |

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