The writer runs into a neighbour and his young Budha tree, but then something hilarious happens...
Hurrying along down The Mall in our car, my husband and I are rushing to Bagh-i-Jinnah or Lawrence Gardens to catch the last light before sunset. As we enter the gates, it is like stepping back into our younger days with our small children, when we would come here on so many weekends to admire the trees and have picnics in this grand, public garden of Lahore.
This precious Raj-era botanical garden is modelled on Kew gardens, and we have come specially to see one particular tree species that marks early winter in Lahore. This is the Buddha tree or the silk floss tree, a member of the family to which our very own Indian simal or Bombax tree belongs.
We quicken our pace along the familiar footpath leading to our favourite Buddha tree and arrive at that eerie time when there are no shadows at all, and the light is fading into darkness. Sure enough, we find the tree and crane our necks to watch its branches and canopy overhead.
It is almost leafless but is festooned with gorgeous flowers. Like lilies distributed all over a magnificent, dome-like canopy, the luscious flowers are a deep cream colour, edged with rich buttery yellow, each flower the size of a tea- saucer. There are also round, bright green buds as big as teaspoons along many stems.
Our Buddha tree at sunset spookily seems to wave its flower-bedecked branches in front of our faces, and yet there is no breeze associated with these movements. In the setting sun, we see that the Buddha tree is teeming with life. Like canny puppeteers, it is the bats that are moving these branches as they feed on the delectable, sugary nectar offered by its flowers. Moths are sparkling all around the canopy, and the whole seems buzzing and moving with nocturnal life.
This particular tree is well marked and shows us that it was planted in 1910, making it over a century old. Its natural habit is not here in Lahore at all but in far away sub-tropical forests of South America. In its native Bolivia, it is called the ‘tree of refuge’ or toborochi. Prized as an ornamental, it is planted in many parts of the world along avenues and parks.
Its gracefully drooping canopy reaches up to 30 feet in Lawrence Gardens, planted there no doubt by it botanical curators as a specimen of beauty and rarity. Its trunk is bottle-shaped, bulging in its lower portions, with a girth that must be about six feet wide and turned to grey with age.
This trunk is studded with thick, sharp conical prickles which deter wild animals from climbing the trees. In younger trees, the trunk is green from its high chlorophyll content, which makes it capable of producing food for the tree through photosynthesis even when the leaves have been shed in winter.
At the same time as the grand old one in Lawrence Gardens, a young Buddha tree in our neighbourhood is flowering near our home. Its green trunk is only the girth of a man’s thigh, and the conical prickles around its trunk are still fresh, green and sharp.
The next morning, I walk with my dog admiring this tree on a neighbour’s verge. Just at that moment, *Usman, the neighbor, walks out onto his manicured lawn to stand next to his lovely, young, flowering Buddha tree. He is over six feet tall and is only slightly shorter than his tree whose largest branch would be about the width of his arm.
“Salam, lovely flowers on your tree” I comment as I walk by, being careful not to appear too friendly since this neighbour is known to have an unpredictable, volatile sort of temper. No sooner has he begun to acknowledge the compliment, than our dog Bitya points herself into an arrow shape, quivering with attention.
Aligning the tip of her nose in one horizontal line with the tip of her elegant tail, Bitya sees our unfortunate neighbour as an imminent threat to me. As soon as he returns my greeting, Bitya charges the man, emitting a low, growling bark meant to frighten but not harm – in her eyes, he is some ostrich-like creature that must be flushed out from the tree lest he volleys an attack on me.
Poor Usman doesn’t know that all he needs to do is stand his ground and Bitya will immediately back off. That is the signal for the dog to cease the chase. Instead, the six feet tall man scrambles up the twiggy trunk of his Buddha tree, scraping himself on prickles designed to hurt climbing animals, and grabs its lowest branch for dear life. Within seconds, Usman with the lowest branch still in his embrace but now detached from the trunk, has tumbled onto the plush lawn. Bitya has now rounded off her scare tactics, as I helplessly watch the scene unfolding before my very eyes. It has all happened before I can control Bitya or calm Usman.
Aware of the bruising to both body and ego that this incident has caused, yet unable to control the laughter now bubbling up through my throat, I hurriedly apologise and clip Bitya safely on her lead.
There is nothing left to do but round the street corner, and let out the laughter that the sight of the tall man and the snapping of the young Buddha tree branch have elicited. So much for the tree of refuge from Bolivia.
* Name has been changed
The writer is Lahore-based Ecologist