A Tree Walk, Carl Linnaeus, Mythology and…Economics!

For me, Monday blues begin on Saturday night itself. I was groaning internally with the thought of another gruelling week ahead and wondering how I could ever get the energy for a full week ahead in just one Sunday when…I heard about the tree walk organized by Virasat Pune and decided on the spur of the minute that I would go and see what its all about. It was one of those delightful unplanned things, which mercifully do happen at times. I went off early morning to the Hirwai track, where the rendezvous was about to begin, where we were introduced to Prof. S. D. Mahajan, who would be our expert guide on the walk.

S. D. Mahajan? THE S. D. Mahajan? The nippy cold air and the name were enough to awaken me rather sharply. Oh gosh, I had no clue that Prof. Mahajan would himself show us around! I mean, I know about this guy! He has been active in the field for decades now and is Pune’s very own botanist and biologist, whose work for forests, trees and urban tree covers has inspired generations..and sure enough, as we started the walk, it was easy enough to see how his enthusiasm infectiously spread through a motley crowd of around 15-17 nature enthusiasts who had gathered there.

Prof S D Mahajan on our tree walk

Prof S D Mahajan on our tree walk

We walked through the Hirwai track on the NFAI road, which must hardly have been a kilometre long. But each of those trees, leaves and flowers had a fable to tell us, because we had the master storyteller and the interpreter in our midst. It was with great love and yet, with scientific rigour that Prof. Mahajan and his son Parag Mahajan, led us through the trees that were ready to talk to us.

Continuity of life…

We saw alstonias (saptaparnis) and mahogany trees of a couple of varieties. On seeing the second mahogany variety, which to my untrained eye looked nothing like the first, I ventured asking Prof. Mahajan “Sir, how do you know this is a mahogany…is it from the leaf or the structure of the tree…” With a delighted chuckle, he said “Well, now that I have been studying trees for decades, I can identify a tad better than you, obviously! But to give you a scientific answer, to really identify trees, we need to look at the flowers and fruits, which form the reproductive structure of the trees. Leaves, barks, structures are important for identification, but the reproductive system maintains its characteristics more robustly than any other system of the trees because it is responsible for life continuity.. ”

That’s perfect…a small part of me actually patted God on his back for having been impeccable to the last detail…hmm…life continuity has to be the most robust part of any system..nice, eh?

Distinctive species at Hirwai

The very distinctive Karmal tree leaf

The very distinctive Karmal tree leaf

The Rohitak tree

The Rohitak tree

Exotic can be problematic!

And then, there were beautiful karmals, rohitaks, kunti trees and bamboos. There were also the very common eucalyptus trees on the track, which as we all know, absorb so much water from the soil that it leaves very less water for the other varieties to grow on. “But that is not the only menace,” informed Parag Mahajan. “It is dangerous to import exotic varieties and plant them so very commonly into other eco habitats. The eucalyptus is actually native to Australia and so when the leaves of the eucalyptus fall on the ground, the local microbes that are found in the Australian soil decompose them rapidly. However, these microbe colonies are simply not found in India and hence, eucalyptus leaves take enormously long time to decompose in our soil. They stay in the soil longer; if you burn it, it affects the quality of air. And, the most interesting part of the story is that the medical usefulness of eucalyptus in relieving colds is not even scientifically verified. Planting exotic varieties can really impinge on the local eco-system in more ways than one.”

I suddenly went back in my mind to my classes, where I had vehemently been arguing just the week before that juxtaposing the Keynesian solution of the US Depression onto a supply shock driven Indian economy would be a recipe for disaster. Stagflation modelling on eucalyptus…heehee…control yourself, woman, is what my mind was telling me..

But I am teetering…as usual…so lets get back to the walk…

There was another interesting anecdote that Prof. Mahajan shared on the commonly found “Su-babhul” tree. This bears whitish yellow flowers and has thorns and is commonly seen on almost any street of Pune. Now, this is again an African origin tree and it was initially imported because farmers thought that the thorny structure would help in fencing and in preventing soil erosion. It was originally called as “Ku-babhul”; the “ku” prefix is used to describe the not very good for you things of life. The thorns and the fact that it was no a good fodder and contained an ingredient called mimosa that was bitter, helped it to earn the name ku-babhul, but farmers started using it enthusiastically for fencing their farmlands and plantations of the tree were created from where farmers could buy it. When the erstwhile PM Mrs. Indira Gandhi visited Maharashtra, the farmers associations took her on a visit to these plantations and explained why these trees were in so much vogue and as legend has it, it was Mrs. Gandhi who said that if it is such as excellent tree, then it ought to be named “Su-babhul”!

Please permit me to formally dither here…it is too much not to. Politicians do seem to have a penchant for changing names. Oh, how I wish we had the guts to call a Ku-Babhul a Ku-Babhul. Because changing names did us no good, did it. How I wish we had the guts to call ourselves a closed economy and NOT a GATT founder member. And how I wish we had the guts to call Garibi Hatao as a Garibi and despondency and dependency Badhao….ok, sorry, I get back..

The name stuck and the tree too stuck, but it creates its own issues as it grows aggressively and blocks growth of the indigenous varieties of trees. Whilst thinning forests these days, care is taken to see that such varieties are thinned out first, while retaining the indigenous bio-diversity in them.

I also got to see the Karanja tree with the fruit shaped like the Maharashtrian sweetmeat Karanji! Karanja plantations are done for bio-fuels and have been generally seen to yield more at lesser environmental damage as compared to Jatropha, which is the exotic foreign bio-fuel variety.

The fruit of the Karanja which carries the non-edible oilseeds

The fruit of the Karanja which carries the non-edible oilseeds

Medicines galore..

And then, there were so many medicinal varieties that we saw. There was a young Adulsa tree, folks; the Adulsa syrup which is traditionally our defence against the nasty common cold, is an extract of this tree. The flowers look like a lion that has his jaws open and hence the name “Sinhamukhi” is also used for this tree.

Check out Prof. Mahajan talking about how the stamens of the Adulsa flower look like the lions teeth (People, an initial tiny part of this is in Marathi)

 

And for the first time in my life, and this was truly exciting for me, I saw a “Murud-sheng” growing on a tree!!! A murud-sheng is a twisted, tightly coiled fruit, that is the traditional herb used in Maharashtra against tummy ache for small kids. There is a popular thought stream in botany- the doctrine of signature. This doctrine tells us that when nature creates a tree or a fruit, it bears a signature that helps humans to understand for what this plant will help us! Great example is that of the walnut. Looks uncannily like the brain and is useful…for brain development! Similarly, the murud-sheng looks uncannily like the intestines coiled the wrong way or a hernia ailment. And it really is used for either digestion ailments and also has been known to help along in treating hernias.

Adulsa with its bright red flowers

Adulsa with its bright red flowers

 

The Murud-sheng with its doctrine of signature for the intestinal ailment

The Murud-sheng with its doctrine of signature for the intestinal ailment

Super-interesting trees and crazy connections

Did you know that the altha, which is the red colour used on the hands of the bride or during Bharatanatyam recitals, is a tree product? Now, we saw this altha (Bartondi is the local name) tree, as I like to call it, on the track, which is characterized by a superb crocodile bark…see this…

The crocodile bark of the altha tree

The crocodile bark of the altha tree

Now, the way the leaves and roots of this tree interact with the soil, a composition is created in the soil which is just about perfect for the growth of the sandalwood trees! So, in a way, this tree serves as the host tree for the sandalwood tree. In a forest, the presence of the crocodile bark implies that you are close to finding your sandalwood!

And there was this HUGELY interesting fact that I learnt about the Arjuna trees. If you remember your mythology right, it is the Arjun Vriksha that Krishna had felled when he was tied up by his mother. Now these are really huge and enormously tall trees with a very light whitish colored bark. To identify, just scratch the surface of the white bark and the inside layer looks green! Scratch some more and it looks red! The tree on the track was not fully mature and so we did not see the red colour but you can see the green inner bark in this photo below. Since the trunk is green and has chloroplasts, this is one tree whose trunk can photosynthesize!

The photosynthesizing trunk of the Arjun tree

The photosynthesizing trunk of the Arjun tree

Kunti named her son Arjun because he was the fairest amongst her sons and someone she aspired to be the tallest amongst all warriors! Prof. Mahajan quipped that had Kunti seen the Saag tree in full blossom with its unusually tall and huge canopy, perhaps she would have named her third son “Saag”!

Further folks, is some SUPER interesting stuff. Arjun…translates into Argentinum. Silver. See? With symbol Ag. Talk of multidisciplinary stuff, people…mythology and botany and plant anatomy and Latin taxonomy as given by Carl Linnaeus? How much more can you want to set the mind free?

And here is the master on the Arjun tree…

 

We saw many many other varieties: The monkey biscuit tree, African sausage, Vaval, Singapore Cherry, Kadamba, Vaval, Putranjeeva, the original Ashok tree (not the one we think is Ashok!)..the list is endless.

An unusually stimulating morning, this. With so many ideas and heady concoctions in my head, I spent a highly enjoyable and contended and just…happy day today. Monday, I am ready for you.

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