Igrew up among trees, ‘gentle giants’ as writer Ruskin Bond refers to them. Pune has many old trees lining its many avenues. And, I trust there are many tree lovers as well, going by how many people gather together and rally to save them whenever there is an ill-conceived plan by the Municipality to cut some of them for road widening or property development projects.
Trees fascinate me. An old, dying giant ramfal tree ( Annona reticulata or Bullock’s heart) stood in the premises of my housing society. The residential area where I live stood on old orchards, and the older folks tell us that the tree existed before the building was made. It was already old when I was growing up. I also remember the last time it gave fruit. It was cut down when I was about seven years old, because it had become old and was decaying. I always thought that some of the big trees around Pune were as old as Pune itself.
But I was in for a surprise when I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, last November and saw the streets lined with blooming jacaranda ( Jacaranda mimosifolia ) trees, my favourite summer tree back home. This beautiful tree flowers in the summer months in Pune, and it is a sight to behold. The tree is covered with violet flowers and it appears like a mirage in the sweltering heat of a summer afternoon, instantly offering cooling relief to the eyes. I discovered that the tree is actually native to South America, which explains its abundance on the streets of Buneos Aires. It flowers in November as Argentina experiences summer solstice from December to February. So it is an exotic.
I also discovered that my favourite monsoon tree, the buch ( Millingtonia hortensis ) is from Myanmar. This tall tree (also called gagan chumbi or the ‘one that kisses the sky’) showers its lovely white flowers with every gust of wind, and its flowers emit a pleasant fragrance. The good old ramfal is in fact from the Caribbean islands.
These trees have adapted to the climate in Pune and thrive here. But some exotic trees can also have a reverse effect on the ecosystem of the land where they are planted.
I spent a month-and-a-half in Rajasthan’s Pali district last year, talking to the sturdy Raika, a pastoral people who breed camel, sheep and goat. They live around the Kumbhalgarh Widlife Sanctury and on our walks with them into the forests where they take their camel and other livestock for grazing, they showed us the bavaalia or the Prosopis juliflora ' The crazy one, as they call it, has spread across the landscape. It was introduced in the 1930s in India from Mexico.
The camel and other livestock get sick when they eat its fruits. It also spreads like a shrub, not allowing grass and other shrubs, that is good fodder for the livestock, to grow. This is sad, since the desert ecosystem of Rajasthan has its own beautiful trees like the Khejri ( Prosopis cineraria ) which support agriculturists and pastoralists, by providing leaves, fruits and even fertilizer.
My fascination with trees has only grown while learning about where these few species came from and how they have adapted to the Indian climate. At the same time, the bavaalia experience also points out that one needs to be careful while planting exotics.
I hope you too have been inspired to delve a little deeper about the history and origin of trees that you see around you in your city.
This series on Conservation and Nature is brought to you by Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group. (www.kalpavriksh.org).