Palmyra, the official tree of Tamil Nadu, that once edged rivers, lakes, tanks and seashores in crores and served as a windshield and bund strengthener, is in focus after the Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement decided to go ahead with toddy tapping from January 21, next year.
Known as Karpagatharu — the mythical tree that would offer anything to those who stand under it — the palm had an important place in Tamil society, and Chera kings accorded official status for its flower. There were 50 crore trees in the State before independence and the number had come down to just five crores, sources said.
The advent of the refined sugar industry, coupled with the Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), gradually overshadowed the sturdy tree that was also known for its longevity.
“The stigma attached to palm tree climbers is one of the reasons that resulted in their disappearance,” S. Nallasamy, president of the movement, said.
He made a strong case for toddy tapping on the ground that it not only saved the trees, but the proceeds from selling palm products would even help the State government to overcome its debts.
D. Narasimhan, Associate Professor of Botany, Madras Christian College (MCC), said toddy, more nutritious than other similar natural drinks, was one of the 801 products traditionally obtained from a palm tree. Unfermented, it could be consumed as a sweet drink.
“As Canada has succeeded in promoting Maple-based sugar, we could have also promoted palm-sugar as a parallel product in a big way,” he said.
The tree’s importance could be understood from the 16th century literature Thazhai Vilasam penned by Kudanthai Arunachalam.
He said the palm trees dotting seashores were being felled to give a clear view of the sea for the residents of villas, apartments and guest houses. “This happens because we lost the traditional knowledge about the benefits of the tree. When I did a survey in the wake of the Thane cyclone, I found only the palm had the resilience to withstand the wind. Extensive use of the tree as a fuel in brick klins in the last two decades led to large scale destruction of the trees,” he said.Ornithologist P. Jaganathan said usage of palm trunks in brick kilns was actually one of the causes of man-elephant conflict since the animal was fond of eating the pith of the tree.
The Palm Swift, Weaver Bird, Indian Roller and Myna are known to prefer the palms to nest. Small carnivores like the Palm Caveat visited the tree to drink the juice. “We need to study whether the reduction in the number of trees has a direct bearing on the numbers of such animals and birds,” he said.