Old kind of magic

March and April are the months of Lahore’s very own Simul, or Sumbhal tree

Oil painting on canvas, Simul tree by Nazir Ahmad.

Bombax malabaricum or the silk of Malabar, that’s the meaning of the name of our tree, for in Greek bombyx means silk; Malabar, being on the southwestern coast of India, between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea.

We know it as our very own Simul, or Sumbhal tree. Our very own because this grand tree is native to the sub-continent, found all the way east to west, south to north of our region, from the Andaman Islands to Sindh, from Kerala to the lower Himalayan foothills.

In eleven sub-continental languages, Simul has 283 names and variations of names. I actually counted them on the UN Environment Programme’s regional website. In Tamil, it may be called anything from agigi to yamatturumam, or alternatively by any of its other 72 Tamil names. This being the language in which it has the most numerous variety of names. In Tibetan, it is called sin-sa-lma-la, an endearing composite word, and the only name for it in that language. Not surprising, since our Tibetan landscapes are mostly at altitudes beyond the reach of the stately Simul. Incidentally, we do have a finger of Tibetan landscape in Pakistan, but that’s a secret to be revealed another time.

Of our four Urdu names for it, Simul of Sanskrit derivation is what most of us will recognise. In English, it is commonly known as the red silk-cotton tree and is an icon of Lahore particularly in March to April when it blooms.

But first, what of the Simul’s 283 names? Well, they say that names are an ‘old kind of magic’ for summoning up what might have vanished. As names disappear so too does the thing named disappear. No, this is not some sort of old wives’ tale. Conservation science also has found a scientific correlation between the use and number of names for a thing in nature and the survival of the thing itself.

When something continues to be deeply important to us humans, we have many nuanced names for it in our living languages. For example, the Maasai of Kenya are pastoralist animal herders who have over 200 names to describe the colour markings and patterns of their cattle, denoting the importance, value and significance of these animals in their society.

So back to our Simul tree. In Lahore, it is the cathedral of our trees, towering over the relatively low skyline in the city, each tree over 60 feet. Many Lahoris will recall a display on the inner avenue of the Model Town linear park, where a row of Simul trees a century-old, tower in flowering glory at this time of the year. Turning that corner into Model Town A Block, we are wonderstruck with the grandeur of those old trees.

The Simul tree stands like a statuesque being, its dun-coloured trunk vertical, with branches fanning out from its central column like fingers radiating from a palm. Each splaying out some 30 feet, the branches, naked of leaves in winter, hold a spectrum of orange flowers each about six inches wide. Fleshy like rubber, the floral colour variations of individual trees are a counting game for Lahoris.

How many shades of orange on different Simul trees can one see today? Cream, yellow, orange, flame orange, pinkish-orange until one runs out of names for the colour tones. But watch out, walking under these cathedral trees in flower, craning the neck and counting colour shades, can have its hazards too. With a solid plop at frequent intervals, large, squishy Simul flowers drop down considerable heights. It’s like your naughty brother striking you with a well-aimed clay ball on the back of the neck from some concealed rooftop.

Where flowers may cause injury to head, so also is ease to the head provided from the Simul. The silk-cotton fibres seen floating from the Simul flower make for fine pillow and quilt fillings. Simul cotton fibre has made a comeback after being overtaken by cotton and polyester fibre for our bedding. The costliest but cushiest pillows carried by one Pakistani department store were, in fact, the red silk- cotton stuffed pillows (label carefully omitting the vernacular Simul name, so that it might seem a more exotic product).

Just like its numerous names, the traditional uses of the Simul in the sub-continent are beyond counting. It is used medicinally in Ayurveda, Unani and folk medicines for its root, gum, bark, leaves, flowers, young fruit and seeds. It addresses problems of dysentery, lungs, flu, inflammations, ulcers, acne and many more. The scrumptious, chocolate brown seed cones, dry and scattered on our roads, make the ingredients of a spicy noodle soup of northern Thailand and China. Its fleshy flowers are dried and cooked in South India.

Singing its high praises though, birds are without equal in using our Simul trees as homes, supermarkets and multistory places of congregation.

In the months ahead, Lahore’s air will be swirling with the ethereal white silk hair of the Simul as flowers ripen to seed. While beautiful, those prone to allergy are well-advised to wear their handy facemasks, particularly in the early morning hours when the release of the silk peaks from the tree. This malefic aspect of the majestic Simul will soon pass. Its grandeur, meanwhile, endures far longer in our lives.

The writer is a Lahore-based ecologist

March and April are the months of Lahore’s very own Simul, or Sumbhal tree