Marriage between Wild honey & Burga (Kopak or silk cotton) tree

The Mysore – Mangalore road is a route I have traveled during every other major holiday since my college days. Today things are different, traffic has increased a hundred fold & also I hardly travel by bus. Traveling by bus has its own charm: You see the world around you from a heightened perspective, & enjoy more than in a car. Mountains look closer, valleys looks deeper, shrubs looks smaller & trees seems to run faster too! 😀

My husband is my official driver who just loves to drive, or rather, does not trust anyone else’s driving!! I love to watch Mother Nature & for the last several years I have been noticing many tall Buruga trees, especially on the Hunsur-Kushalnagar stretch. Depending upon the season, it either has flowers, young leaves, or just barren. One particular tree close to Koppa, always catches my attention because of the number of wild honey combs hanging on it. One time, we even stopped the car to count about 220 or more: some full of honey, some abandoned combs & some fresh – half done & some are almost falling apart! A real sight to behold! Every time we are about to approach the area, my husband, starts: “your tree… your tree….. “ & we count until it becomes a dot in the rear view mirror! (How lucky I am to have my own tree in words…. Hahahaha). So unless & until it is really late & dark outside when we cannot see the hives, we never miss the tree – we will say “the treeeee”

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My curiosity & obsession with Mother Nature also helped me to realize that the wild honey bees are comfortable building their honey comb on only a chosen few buruga trees. A couple of kilometers before we approach ‘the treeee”, there are two Burga trees about a kilometer apart: one with three honey combs & one with just one. The bees must be getting comfortable with those trees too. Hum. I wish I could talk to the bees & ask them why are they so comfortable with this particular species of tree, & why only some of them! Why the marriage with the spiky burga tree? Is it because it is too tall or too spiky for the predators or deciduous or simply because of the copious supply of nectar from its flowers when they bloom?

When I was talking to my brother, Japs, I was told that in the coffee estates, most of the wild honey combs are built on burga trees or wild jackfruit trees. And olden days the natives would tie a thin rope to the end of an arrow, & shoot the arrow to the honeycomb. The honey will dip through the thread to a pot kept under the tree! (What an ingenious & harmonious dealing.) I never had the privilege of witnessing it though!!

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My love for the Burga tree could also be subconsciously linked to a feeling of nostalgia that takes me back to my childhood days. Growing up most of the mattress at home was made from Kapok fiber (cotton) which is from the fruit of the Burga tree. Unlike the hybrid tree cottons grown today, Kapok lasts for years & years without causing allergy or becoming powdery! The hybrid cotton becomes powdery within couple of years. So much for man’s intervention in Mother Nature’s creations! My mother, the late Patsy, like most Coorg ladies of the time, was a fanatic of Kopak Mattress. Back home in the Western Ghats after the rainy season, i.e. at the beginning of the summer as well as at the end of the summer, all mattresses are put in the sun religiously & it was really a fun time for us kids. Jumping on the mattress & pillow fights outdoor was extremely entertaining which usually ended only when mother was around shouting at us. Our giggling & fighting (what a combination) would never end & even would try to make small holes in the pillow so that the cotton escapes flies around us!!

Best was the time when it is put back on the cot… oh boy… the mattress used to be so soft & puffy… more jumping… the sun dried warm crispy smell as opposed to the monsoon mugginess before they were sun dried We always piled more than one mattress on the cot, & it used to feel like royal bed… a princess on seven layers of bliss! (We had multiple mattresses to support the 10’s of guests who come in during weddings & other social functions)

When the fruit of the Burga that contains the cotton is ripe & almost dry, it falls on ground after splitting, scattering the cotton all around forming vivid shapes & sizes. Eventually it would be carried away by wind forming more shapes & sizes. We would catch them & search for shapes like birds (I remember almost always finding a dove heads/necks!!), or collect few & stick it on others hair to make them look old, etc. Looking back I myself cannot believe that we used to have so much fun with simple things like cotton or jumping on the hay stack those days!! (Other fun activities were climbing the trees, hunting for exotic summer fruits & playing in the river. Wish I could relive them again on the green & pleasant land..) Those were the simple days when we were not chased by the gadget bhoooot (ghost)!

More information on the Buruga tree:

Stately Buruga (Genus: Ceiba & Species: pentandra) tree appears on the flag of Equatorial Guinea. It is said that the tree was sacred to Mayan people who believed that the souls of the dead climbed the mythical kapok whose branches reached into heaven. It is a colossal tropical tree (a very fast growing tree which can be taller than 200 feet) with palmate & compound leaves (5 to 9 leaf lets), deep ridges on its massive trunk, spiny, drought deciduous (shed leaves in dry season). The crown has an open umbrella shape. The tree is also called Java cotton or silk cotton which is famous for its wide buttresses. But the ones I have seen does not have enough buttresses…… guess the soil does not have enough butter (just kidding). Back home it grows wild in the forest & in the estates. The tree sheds it’s foliage in the beginning of winter & by beginning of January the top crown of the tree is covered by numerous marble sized green buds with plum colour sheen on them. By February, 5 to 10 cm long vibrant chalice shaped, flaming red flowers with 5 thick velvety petals curling backwards starts to bloom. Between February & March it paints the whole landscape in an enchanting red hue with striking blaze of crimson.

The kapok tree occupies an important niche in the ecosystem of a rainforest. With the flowers comes the flock of colorful birds, wonder how they get hold of the scent of the blooming flower – its amazing? The sight & sound of the birds is a feast to the eyes & ears which has to be experienced!! The flowers grow in a circle of five unequal bunches with a bunch in the center. Yellow at the base, their red tips merge into the flower. The rich nectar in the flower attracts bees, birds & other insects which also act as pollinating agents. It has an unpleasant odour perhaps to attract the bats too. By March – April, it bears green pods which hang from the branches. The pods are woody, smooth & pendulous. As they mature, it will burst open while still on the tree after the leaves have fallen, from which the fluffy soft cotton escapes with the slightest breeze floating like fallen white clouds. Finally it splits completely & falls to ground. Just before it cracks, the pod is plucked & silk-like cotton kapok is collected. It also contains plenty of black seed that is covered by the cotton. The process of harvesting & separating the cotton from seed is manual & labour-intensive. The cotton is light, silky soft, elastic, strong & buoyant. If wet, just drying in the sun would bring it back to its original form!! The cotton is also used in stuffing cushions & pillows, upholstery, wadded cloth quilts, insulation, stuffed toys & tinder. During the Second World War these were popularly used in life jackets which known as Mae Wests. However, the fiber is not used for clothing because it is short & breaks easily so it cannot be easily made into thread like cotton. Now a day’s Kopak cotton is practically taken over by synthetic substitutes & it is hard to find decent kapok mattresses. Almost all the parts of burga tree have high medicinal value & is one of the special tress considered as a panacea.

(Part 1 of 2) – Read part two for the sad details of the death of a tribal woman….

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