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It’s spring, find yourself some flower-shade

Spring is a magnification of nature’s best features. Watch the semal—which flowers once a year—and this will prepare you for more tree grandeur to follow

A peafowl on a semal tree.
A peafowl on a semal tree. (Neha Sinha)

There is a short time of the year in India when you don’t run for the shade, and the air is saturated with a honey-in-whisky sweetness. Tulips, not dust motes, emerge from carefully tended roundabouts and new leaves unfurl with a blush. The short, spectacular Indian spring is here.

There’s a clock that runs southwards to northwards in India. It’s the flower clock. In the south, the semal is already blooming. An Indian tree with large, colourful flowers: red, orange, yellow—the semal is unmissable. Semals flower once a year, and they make it count. The trees drop their leaves and put on masses of flowers like a string of coloured bulbs. The flower-cup is redolent with nectar—and all kinds of birds, insects and mammals visit to feast on it. In the long winter in the north, the first semal has just started blooming because spring is touching the trees. As the blooms open, watch out for different combinations of birds, bats, squirrels and monkeys on the blossoms. This is an extra-sensory tree. If you miss the birds on the flowers or the bats, butterflies or bees, you won’t be missing the flowers altogether. Because they will be plonking all around you, lushly carpeting the ground.

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Soon, the warm, saturated colours of the season will be replaced by the stark gaze of summer—pitiless, sweeping, missing nothing, scraping out the last corners of the outdoors with its heat. But till then, there is this unusual season where wildlife is known to do unusual things. In the gentle sun, otherwise shy or solitary birds bask or flock together. This is the only time of the year when you see Brown-headed or Coppersmith barbets sitting together on a single tree, leaf-green and fluffed up, soaking up the sun. Normally, these fruit-eating birds will fight each other off. At this time though, they look like a group of neighbours in a community hall enjoying a run of songs together—like they will tolerate each other as long as they can enjoy something together. And this is also a good time to see hornbills basking in the sun. Usually, hornbills will whoosh away in noisy wing flaps if they see you. During the end of winter and the beginning of spring, they will perch, still as stones on trees, to get sunshine. And as cities get ready for their spring festivals—Delhi has its ongoing tulip festival; Washington DC, US, will celebrate its cherry blossom festival soon—we can agree that this is one season of the year we all look forward to because it brings us closer to an idealised form of nature.

In a few short weeks, we will be craving the relief of standing in the shade. Anyone who treks, walks or prefers being outdoors understands the cool, inky and immediate relief of a tree’s shadow. After time in the sun, a tree’s shadow feels like a dip in a pond. By the beginning of April, one feels like pulling one’s own shadow like a cloak or umbrella over our bodies. Shadows are a function of light and often, of being outdoors—they change as the time of the day does, their starkness also feels different according to the season. They have been written about extensively and imaginatively by many authors. In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan books, Peter’s shadow detaches from him and was a character in itself. In fantasy author Holly Black’s best-selling Book Of Night, shadows can be manipulated.

Last spring, I stood in the intricate, astounding shadow of a tree with no foliage, only flowers. It was a semal, and it stood in south Delhi’s residential colony, Vasant Kunj. The tree had masses of red flowers, and as the midday sun rose, the flowers flirted with light and sun, dappling speckles of shadow on my face. It is a peculiar, once-in-a-year sensation: standing under flower-shadows at the best time of the year. I highly recommend it. A peacock came and settled on the branches of the tree. It wasn’t interested in nectar, bugs or anything except walking the length of the branches, seemingly enjoying the presence of the flowers. Its long, iridescent tail swept through the candy red of the blossoms in a flash of metallic colour, feather and flower meeting in a smooth, unforgettable swirl. It felt like I was looking at an impossibly beautiful, secret thing—like seeing a pattern etched at the bottom of a whale, or seeing the cross-section of a seed and finding geometry and poetry there.

Watch the semal this season, as others will watch the cherry trees blossom , and this will prepare you for more tree grandeur to follow. After the semal, there will be the palash. It puts out a complex flower that looks something like a claw. The most common palash is bright orange, and as the tree sheds leaves to present just its flowers, standing near a flowering palash is like standing next to a blaze, with curving licks of flames that leap towards the sky. In Madhya Pradesh, I stood in the flower-shade of a rare, yellow palash tree. It was like being near a cool, tender sun, one I wanted to revolve around.

Then there is the lovely, understated barna, with off-white flowers that look something like spiders. This is a venerated tree, sacred to Hindus and grown near temples, which flowers in April. The flowers grow in clusters. Anthers stick out in a manner that resemble a candelabra; at the height of its flowering, with no leaves on its body, the barna looks like a giant candle covered in gentle runnels of soft light, wax and filaments. After the barna, comes the amaltas and the gulmohar (the latter is not originally an Indian tree, but is naturalised now in India), bringing florid relief on the hottest of days.

The trees give us a manifesto, traced in petals, stamens and style—we must plant more Indian trees. And we must let the trees grow to their preferred size and shape. As climate change burns forests, it is prudent that all trees planted should be native, not foreign. This will mean flower-shade for the wild and for us, and it will help create forests of resilience.

For now, enjoy the spring. Run towards flower-shade. They say love is a magnification of one’s brilliance. Spring feels like that too—a magnification of nature’s best features (and so, also the onlooker’s—her attention, her appreciation, her ability to hold an image for the year to come, to live the moment thoroughly). The mornings are chilly, the afternoons warm enough to forget the chill, evenings cold enough for a blanket in a favourite colour—it is a cycle that aids remembering, forgetting, and remembering again. And so, living spring days to the fullest is a microcosm of living a full life.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

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