Semul, also called Silk Cotton tree (Salmalia malabarica), is the largest and most beautiful tree of the Indian subcontinent. Alternate scientific name is Bombax malabaricum. It belongs to the malvaceae plant family. It comes up, grows and flourishes quite easily in low hills as well as in the plains. Altitude-wise, its habitat varies from 200 to 1200 m. It grows happily in openings and gaps, whether in the forest cover or the vacant edges of agricultural fields.
The natural habitat of semul starts from Burma in the East extends to Kabul, Kandhar, Afghanistan in the West. Latitude-wise, its habitat starts from southern costs and extends to the foot of the Himalayan ranges.
The bark of semul tree is gray-white. It has short thick bristles. The branches take off in whorls at uniform gaps at the height of its bole. With prickles on stem, the leaves are compound. The individual leaflet looks like the mango leaf.
Semul trees bear beautiful red-colored flowers during January to March. The phenomenon paints the whole landscape in an enchanting red hue. The fruit, the size of a ping-pong ball, on maturity appears during March and April. These are full of cotton-like fibrous stuff. It is for the fiber that villagers gather the semul fruit and extract the cotton substance called "kopak". This substance is used for filling economically priced pillows, quilts, sofas etc.
Semul is quite a fast growing tree and can attain a girth of 2 to 3 m, and height about 30 m, in nearly 50 years or so. Its wood, when sawn fresh, is white in color. However, with exposure and passage of time it grows darkish gray. It is as light as 10 to 12 kg, per cubic foot. It is easy to work but not durable anywhere other than under water. So it is popular for construction work, but is very good and prized for manufacture of plywood, match boxes and sticks, scabbards, patterns, moulds, etc. Also for making canoes and light duty boats and or other structures required under water.
Semul seed is very light in weight. It has light hair around. The arrangement helps the seed to drift in wind to reach far and wide tracts. Its natural germination and regeneration are accordingly easy. The species can also regenerate itself from root suckers and cuttings.
To stop deforestation, we can plant more and more of fast-growing species like the Semul. That will be a very good way out not only to enrich the environment but also for garnering raw material for wood-based industries like matches or plywood or making of sofas, beds, quilts, etc. on economical rates.