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For the love of trees…

In London last month, I took a walk by the Thames from Hammersmith Bridge to Chiswick on a crystal clear afternoon, and found myself enchanted by the sight of the riverside trees. Bare of leaves, silhouetted against the winter sky, they were spectacularly beautiful – take for example this weeping willow:IMG_0402

Trees fascinate me. Perhaps paradoxically, I find them most compelling in the winter when their pure structure is laid bare – at least, with the deciduous sort. Not everyone agrees: when a friend saw the photograph, she commented: “Que c’est triste!” (“How sad it looks!”) I can’t see this; after all, with spring just around the corner the trees will be coming back into leaf any minute now, at least in Egypt.

This week has brought confirmation, in the shape of Bombax malabarica. With superb red or orange blooms and, as yet, few leaves these red silk cotton trees herald the arrival of spring in Cairo:

As living organisms go, trees have an epic story to tell. Their origins are lost in the mists of time – conifers go back over 300 million years, while the glorious magnolia may be the most ancient of the flowering trees. Their majestic forms soar upwards, making the human being look puny by comparison – witness the north American redwoods, the Sequoia species. Trees spread their leafy shelter far and wide, literally in the case of the Indian banyan (Ficus bengalensis): one specimen in Calcutta has formed so many additional trunks from myriad roots connected overhead that thousands of people could shelter in it.

Their adaptability is astonishing – the Sequoiadendron of California positively needs fire in order to regenerate; mangroves, by contrast, grow in water and can even survive in the incredibly salty, hot waters of the Arabian Gulf. And, as Colin Tudge points out in his wonderful book “The Secret Life of Trees”*, vast numbers of creatures depend on them for their survival – 4,000 separate species were identified on one tree in Costa Rica, and still counting!

At a rather late point in their evolution, trees had to learn to get along with mankind. We’ve burned their wood for aeons of (our) time; used them for shelter; sailed in them and flown contraptions made from them; shaped them into every kind of tool and utensil and even, sadly, weapons (how the English turned the hard wood and sap wood of the yew tree into longbows is another story). And we have carved them and painted them according to our artistic taste for millennia – not to mention turning them into bats and cues and I don’t know what for our sport.

Ancient Egypt seemingly had few indigenous trees, and wood was scarce. Most carving was done in a wide variety of stone, writing was on papyrus, painting on walls. There were exceptions: the Egyptian Museum has a superb set of carved wooden panels from Saqqara portraying the scribe and eminent official Hesira at different stages of his life, dating from the third dynasty, c. 2,600 BC. But these are rather the exception.

Wood in Ancient Egypt was usually sourced either from what is now Lebanon via Egypt’s trading partner, the port city of Byblos, or from countries to the south of Nubia, such as the land of Punt.

This is odd. A visit to Cairo’s “Hadiqa Al-Zahriya” (Botanic Gardens) on the island of Gezirah confirms that trees from all over the world – tropical Africa, the Americas, Asia and India – don’t just grow in Egypt, they truly thrive. Climate has changed, for sure, but arguably it was more, not less, benign in very ancient times when Egypt was a land of savannah, and ostriches, gazelles and lions roamed the grasslands while hippopotamuses wallowed in the river. Perhaps the alternate seasons of flood and near-drought along the Nile explain the lack of trees – an Indian story goes that weeds bend before floodwaters and then spring back to life, while trees are washed away.**

That said, Cairo has a wonderful Indian banyan tree, planted in the Botanic Gardens in 1868 and now strangely stranded owing to a road that was presumably forced through the middle of the gardens at a later date – after the motor car was invented, perhaps…

In winter many of the city’s trees are without leaves, though the hardy conifers retain their dusty green appearance year-round. Now is the season of drastic pruning and lopping, when trees are cruelly cut down to size and into all sorts of shapes, the public parks are turned into wastelands for a couple of weeks, and lorries carry great loads of sadly torn off branches away for disposal.

B. malabaricum, however, towers over neighbourhoods and bursts into exuberant colour:

Native to India, the red silk cotton tree and other Bombax relatives are the source of kapok – the fluffy filling traditionally used in bedding and clothing. Distant relatives of baobabs and limes, they are also related to balsa, hibiscus and even okra (which, it turns out, is a form of hibiscus, H. esculentus).

At least, this is what I read in Tudge’s book. But it is difficult to understand how plant taxonomy works: the efforts of scientists to ‘bring order to’ the natural world over a few hundred years don’t chime with what we see. I’m not sure that genetics holds the key either, given that, according to Tudge, some trees have an extraordinary capacity to generate new species as and when they feel like it. But then I come across this point in the section on the order rosids, of which Bombax are a part:

“In the present state of knowledge, the rosids do seem to form a coherent group. If future scholars decide that they are not so closely related as it now seems – well: that’s the way science goes. Nothing is ever absolutely certain.”

How refreshing!

Back to the tree adorned with masses of brilliant red flowers: I collected one from a superb specimen near the Shams Club in Heliopolis and brought it home for a close-up. Welcome to the spring!

* “The Secret Life of Trees” by Colin Tudge, published by Penguin Books, 2006

** As related by Sri Swami Satchidananda in his commentary on the “Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali, edition published by Integral Yoga Publications, Yogaville, Va, USA, 1990

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bombax malbarica flowers brought some nostalgic memories in me. In my childhood we use to play with this flowers from a tree near our small pond. That tree is no longer there and the pond. These trees are very rare in my place now. When I saw these trees here in Cairo I was facinated again. (I’m from Kerala, India)

    I read your blog from start to finish. Like your Arabic vocabulary my English vocabulary is not enough to describe what I feel about your blog, šŸ™‚

    Have you read The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuvoka?

    March 10, 2014
    • It’s interesting, isn’t it, how many of our childhood memories are connected with trees, plants and the natural world? We had three wonderful mock cherry trees in the garden of the house where I grew up, near London, and I remember them as a mass of pink or white blossom come the spring – so beautiful!

      About Bombax malabarica (-a in some books, -um in others, I am unclear as to why there should be a difference): I wonder what happened to your tree and pond in Kerala? Crushed by development, removed for farming, taken over by another gardener? I picked up a flower from one of these trees this morning. It’s magnificent – 21cm across and weighing about 40g! There is a mass of dark anthers in the middle, and 5 superb red petals all around.

      I haven’t read Fukuoka’s book but will add it to my ever-growing list of books to look out for. Thank you!

      March 11, 2014
  2. Asha #

    Yes, it is, I googled to see how mock cherry tree looks like. Its beautiful!
    Other trees I associate with my childhood are Aini tree and fruit
    It looks like tiny jackfruit. As children we loved it. Its flower looks like intense stick. We will burn it and use it to light crackers on festival.

    Then Cashew tree. We will pluck cashew apples eat ripe fruits and collect nuts and sell it to buy candies or ice pops. Sometimes take unmatured ones and stick it sand in rows to dry so we can sell that too. (Its because of greed and competition. If we wait till it ripens we wont get it. someother children will come and take it or adults).

    Then punna maram (calophyllum inophyllum) we use to collect its seeds and sell or play with it. Those days its oil was used to wick lamps. Now this tree becoming less and less. People find this tree no use these days but it has significant role in bringing underground water level up.

    We have sacred grooves in kerala where people workship snake god. Its a large cluster of trees or something like mini forest. My Father’s friend an environmentalist (here is a news abt him, if you are interested told me these grooves form where underground water streams meet together. Ponds inside the grooves never dry up. These trees and its roots are the secret behind that.People are not supposed to take anything from these places not even twigs, leaves it is considered as sin. These beliefs helps to protect these places. If these trees are cut off water level in the surrounding area will go down.

    Hope I haven’t bored you. šŸ™‚

    March 11, 2014
    • Asha – your memories are very touching. They remind me of childhood encounters with the apple trees in our garden in St. Albans. English people, as you probably realize, know a thing or two about apples. There were Bramleys (for cooking only – huge, waxy and deep green), and, among the eating (dessert) apples, Cox’s Orange Pippins and a tree that produced the most glorious yellow eating apples that we never managed to identify. Picking an apple off the tree, still warm from the sun, and biting into it (no question of washing, just rub it on the sleeve!), looking out for the pink hues in the flesh beneath the glowing peel, all the while hoping we wouldn’t encounter any creatures inside, while not really worrying too much if we did: such were the pastimes of my brother, myself and our neighbourhood friends!

      I looked up the article about the forest in Kerala. This is an inspiring story. I have to learn, somehow, to stop digging the ground in the garden and to stop fussing about weeds, but it’s against all my gardening instincts… as for not feeding the soil, I can’t, simply can’t, stop making compost: I’m on a mission…

      March 12, 2014
  3. Sylvia, I too think it wont be a good idea to blindly adapt. Soil, vegetation everything is different here. And I know everything is not covered in that article. Please proceed on your own path.

    Thankyou for sharing your childhood memories. I imagined that scene in my mind. We too have same but the fruit is Mango. I cant remember a single apple with worm or sometime like that inside. Maybe it is because of the pesticide use it became inhabitable for poor worms and flies šŸ˜¦

    March 20, 2014

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