Orange flowers of spring

Our lone standing dhaak tree is a sight to be seen in the month of May

“You will do some ikebana practice arrangements,” the young Japanese woman discretely murmured in my ear. Visiting as a guest for our daughter’s wedding, she had presented me with ikebana vases, specialised scissors, prongs in which to stick stems upright, and a manual of Japanese ikebana flower arrangements for each day of the year.

What I came up with was a shallow ikebana container partially filled with water containing seven floating flowers of the dhaak tree whose image is reprinted above. Collected from the roadside verge on our morning walk, they seemed to speak the mood of the season and its aesthetics to perfection in my mind.

Ikebana means making flowers come alive (in Japanese), an art that involved arranging flower offerings at altars as long ago as the 7th Century. For all its renown and fans, I doubted if seven floating flowers in a bowl would qualify as ikebana. What I did not realise is that this simple offering in our home would spark off a journey of remembering the botanical discovery story of the dhaak forest through the one individual of this species that blooms outside our home in the month of May.

As the family admired the bowl of distinctive floating blooms of pure orange, frilly flowers, with their velvety, jet black calyx buttons at the petal base, our daughter described it as “a bowl of swimming goldfish”. After a few days, the artistic flowers began to bleed a pure saffron colour into the clear water. This colour, from these very flowers, is known as kayser in the sub-continent and not only denotes the iconic yellow powder used to play Holi, dye the robes of mystics and monks, but also symbolises spring itself in songs and poems. Indeed, the colour-name is given to an elusive lover whose presence is impermanent but beautiful and desirable. The name, the colour, the symbol is of immense meaning and value in our sub-continent.

In a reverse piece of logic, I had discovered that the saffron colour kayser bleeding into my ikebana container, is derived from the bloom called Gesu that I had collected from the tree called dhaak or palashi. The colour is iconic but its source is forgotten. If one searches these links, it is very difficult to understand that the pure orange flowers of spring from the Indian tree yield a colour which has come to symbolize a whole culture.

The journey of botanical discovery of this tree is about one Dr Amin of Government College University, Lahore. He is one of those rare academics in Pakistan who actually go into the field together with their students and undertake exciting projects of understanding and conservation outside the boring confines of the laboratory.

He recalls combing through the definitive book, Tree Types of Pakistan by Khattak and Champion, when he noticed that a small distribution of Butea monosperma or dhaak forest is reported in a patch of north-eastern Punjab. Dhaak being a wild tree of tropical deciduous forest, immediately alerted the botanist’s mind of Dr Amin.

Wild forests of this tree were to be found in India where they grew alongside teak trees in much of the doab (or land in-between rivers) of the Jamuna and Ganges rivers. But these were cleared in the 19th century when the East India Company increased tax demands on peasants, who were forced to increase arable land and cut down these forests. So what of the dhaak reported in Pakistan? It’s an anomaly: the tree is in the wrong place and the wrong climate so far west of its home range.

The next piece of the botanical puzzle slipped into place as Dr Amin recalls browsing through his son’s school edition of the Oxford atlas of Pakistan. Inside the climatic zones section, he noticed a finger of tropical monsoon belt creeping into Pakistan near Shakargarh tehsil in north-east Punjab bordering Jammu.

So off he went in his jeep looking for Butea in that finger of humid Shakargarh. On the border with India, he discovered a wild grove of dhaak forests in full bloom and witnessed its full orange flame-coloured glory. Local farmers knew all about it, even if it had faded from the memory of foresters. They harvested this wild forest for its flowers to be sold to a private company for its dye, fed its pods to horses and their children enjoyed sucking its sweet flower nectar.

In his eureka moment, Dr Amin hypothesized that this unexplored patch of Butea forest is a relict, or remnant forest, in which individual trees that are highly tolerant of marginal conditions crept into this niche in the wild. He brought this to light through research and scientific publications, laying also the foundation of community awareness for possible benefits of the conservation of this tree. But with the heavy presence of the army, little community-based action is possible, and he reports a decline in this relict as agricultural uses of the land have been allowed to expand into the forest.

As common as dhaak kay paath, meaning as ubiquitous as the leaves of dhaak, is the old saying from the Jamuna region. That may no longer be the case, but our lone standing dhaak tree is still a sight to be seen in the month of May.

The writer is a Lahore-based ecologist

Orange flowers of spring