The Chennai Freethinkers’ Meet for the month of August was held outdoors for a change. We decided to join a Tree Walk organized by Nizhal (meaning ‘Shade in Tamil), an NGO involved in greening urban areas. Despite having a full list of participants, the organizers Shobha and Usha graciously accommodated our group of 20 members. The Tree Walk was at the Nanmangalam Forest Park (in front of the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest) at 8 a.m on Sunday, the 25th of August. CFT members gathered as planned and there were three eager children too. The Tree walk started from the gate of the Forest park and we walked slowly with the Resource persons Bhuvana and Dr.Babu identifying the trees and explaining interesting features about the trees including their scientific attributes and highlighting the mythological connections. The Forest Watcher Mr.Subramanian also accompanied us and gave us information about the trees. I will share some of the aspects we learnt about each tree. The tree names are listed with their common English names, followed by the Botanical names and the Tamil names.
1) Peepal tree – Ficus religiosa – Arasa maram
Peepal tree is also called Ashvatha tree. Dr.Babu explained that Ashva meant Horse in Sanskrit and in ancient times horses were probably tied to rest under this tree. Ganesha idol is commonly found below it and Hindu ascetics meditated beneath this tree. It is said that Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating underneath this tree. The tree gives out compartively more oxygen and that is probably why people assembled under these trees for worship as well as for village panchayat meetings. (The ever present Naattamai theerpu scenes in Tamil films!) We admired its heart shaped leaves and heard how the tree was considered sacred by Hindus as well as Buddhists. This tree belongs to the Fig family. When the coordinator mentioned the wonderful relationship between the fig tree and fig wasp, some of us remembered the account by Richard Dawkins about this symbiotic relationship in his book Climbing Mount Improbable.
2) Arjuna tree –Terminalia arjuna – Marudha maram
We learnt that it is also called ‘neer marudhu’ in Tamil and is found near river banks. The silkworm that produces Tassar silk resides in this tree. We observed its characteristic woody fibrous fruits which enables the dispersal of seed through hydrochory (dissemination of seeds by floating in water).
3) Cannonball tree – Couroupita guianensis -Nagalinga maram
The tree has been aptly named – the fruit looks like a cannonball and the flower looks like a hooded serpent. The nagalinga flower has a distinct appearance and emits a strong and sweet fragrance.
4) Honey Tree – Madhuca longifolia – Iluppai Maram
The sweetness of the iluppai flower has been immortalized in the Tamil proverb ‘ “aalai illaa oorukku iluppaip poo charkkarai” – where there is no sugar mill,the iluppai flower serves as sugar. Dr.Babu explained how the oil cake from the iluppai seed was used in Shrimp farming to kill the fish which preyed upon the prawns. While the fishes are killed by the extract of this plant by means of haemolysis since their blood contain haemoglobin, the shrimps are not affected since they transport oxygen in their blood through haemocyanin.
5) Yellow Myrobalan (Tantrika) – Terminalia chebula -Kadukkai
This tree yields a nut ‘kadukkai’ which is one of the three ingredients in ‘Triphala’ an Ayurvedic medicine.
6) Indian Mahogany – Swietenia mahagoni – Maravembu
The wood is sturdy and is used to make furniture, boats and musical instruments. The bark of the tree has medicinal properties.
7) Indian Jamun – Syzygium cumini – Naaval maram
The tree is native to India and is known as Jamun tree in English as well though the other names are Java Plum tree or Malabar Plum tree. The fruits of this tree are of a distinct purple colour and is nutritious. They are also used to make dyes. There is a legend about how Avvaiyar was engaged in a witty joust by the disguised lord Murugan underneath this tree.
8) Fish tail palm – Caryota mitis – Koonthal panai
It is an ornamental plant and the leaves resemble a fish tail. The dense foliage is said to resemble the flowing tresses of a woman and hence the Tamil name.
9) Indian gooseberry (Amla) tree – Phyllanthus emblica – Nelli maram
The Amla fruit which has a sour and astringent taste is highly nutritious with a good content of Vitamin C. The seeds, leaves, bark and the fruit is used in Ayurveda . It is also used in inks, hair dyes and shampoos because of its high tannin content. Legend has it that the Tamil poet Avvaiyar was offered this highly prized fruit by her friend King Athiyaman to give her a long life and the story is told to appreciate their exemplary friendship.
10) Sandalwood tree – Santalum album – Sandana Maram
The fragrant sandalwood is highly valued and the Essential oil derived from the wood finds uses in the cosmetic industry. It is used to manufacture perfumes. Sandalwood paste is used in Hindu rituals.
11) Kadamba tree – Neolamarckia cadamba – Kadambu maram
This tree has glossy green leaves and is grown commonly as an avenue tree. In mythology it was on the Kadamba tree Krishna hid the garments of gopis and played pranks on them.
12) Indian laurel – Calophyllum inophyllum – Punnai maram
It is an ornamental tree and grows along the coast. The oil from the seed is said to have medicinal properties and is used to cure skin diseases. This tree is the sthala vruksham of the Kapaleeshwarar temple at Mylapore, Chennai. Dr.Babu stated that Sthala vruksham did not mean sacred tree but only meant the predominant species of that area. People inhabiting that area probably had a livelihood based on the local bio resources which they conserved and considered as sacred so that it was neither overexploited nor depleted. Once the dependency on that bioresource for their livelihood diminished that particular species was not conserved and was depleted in that area. A lone tree of that era might have survived inside the temple. Now people treat that tree as sacred forgetting its important uses.
13) Jackfruit tree – Artocarpus heterophyllus – Palaa maram
The word chakka in Malayalam became jaca in Portuguese which is said to be the origin of the name jackfruit. The leaves are similar to that of the leaves of the Punnai maram and the resource person explained the difference in the veins of the leaves. While Jackfruit leaves had angular veins the punnai leaves had parallel veins. The fruit is very sweet and popular in Kerala and Tamilnadu and the wood is used to make musical instruments and furniture. Jackfruit along with Mango and Banana (Maa, palaa, vazhai) are considered the chief of fruits in Tamilnadu.
14) Indian almond tree- Terminalia catappa – Naattu Vadhumai
The tree has distinct circular branches and is commonly found in the city. The seed is edible and has a taste similar to the almond. When the leaves are about to fall they turn a brownish red and the tree looks beautiful then.
15) Silk Cotton tree – Bombax ceiba – Ilavam panju maram
This tree is found in Africa and Southeast Asia as well. The seed is surrounded by the soft fibre and is seen floating in the wind.
16) Indian palm tree – Phoenix sylvestris – Panai maram
This is a very common tree and is the State tree of Tamilnadu. The leaves are used for making bags, mats etc., The sap is tapped and fermented to produce toddy.
17) Tamarind tree – Tamarindus indica – Puliya maram
The tree is indigenous to Africa and was brought to India. The name derives from Arabic Tamr-ind meaning Indian date. The fruit has a major culinary use and the wood is used to make furniture. Some trees are intertwined with some stories and it is impossible to look at a tree without remembering the story. I could not help remembering Sundara Ramasamy’s novel ‘Oru Puliya Marathin Kathai’ wherein a Tamarind tree is the central character around which the lives of the villagers are woven beautifully.
18) White teak – Gmelina arborea – Kumizh/Venthekku
This is a fast growing tree and the timber is used to make furniture, doors, musical instruments. The wood when burnt yields the whitest possible ash and it is said that this ash was used by our ancestors to draw the cave paintings in Tamilnadu. It finds uses in Ayurveda too.
19) Eucalyptus tree– Eucalyptus globules/E.grandis etc. – Nilagiri thaila / Karpoora thaila maram
The tree was cultivated in India to meet the demands of firewood, small timber, poles etc., However concerns were raised about it becoming invasive and replacing other trees in the forest. The tree sucks a lots of water and nutrients. The Eucalyptus oil is used as an insecticide, deodorants, dyes etc., Babu explained that the Eucalyptus leaves are rich in oil content and do not degrade easily. The leaf litter formed an insulating mat above the soil, cutting the soil and air interface. This would increase the temperature of the soil and would also have a negative impact on the bacterial profile of the soil. Depletion of ground water and alteration of the microbial profile might lead to soil infertility in the long run.
With that the tree walk came to a close and we gathered under a tree to listen to the volunteers of Nizhal who shared their experiences and spoke about the need to protect trees. Even if one tree is saved it would save many more species that are dependent on that particular tree said Dr.Babu. Bhuvana spoke about the Tree park developed by her family and received a hearty applause from the gathering. Usha requested us to speak up for trees when they face the danger of the axe. Their passion for protecting the trees and growing more and more trees came through in their genuine and heartfelt plea to save trees. It helps to talk to those who are about to cut the trees just because it hindered an electric line they said. They can be requested to trim only the unwanted branches. A sapling requires care only for a few months; just watering them and ensuring that they are not grazed would help in them growing into majestic trees. Whenever you see advertisements nailed to a tree, call the number and register your protest, they suggested. Dr.Babu reminded us that we could call the Corporation Helpline number 1913 whenever we see a tree being vandalized. The trees should not be completely surrounded with concrete paving, they reminded. Finally they requested us to carry the message as Ambassadors of Nizhal and spread it among our residential communities. It was heartening to see an NGO that had humble beginnings grow steadily and have a large impact in promoting the tree culture in urban areas. We thanked them profusely and expressed our desire to see more mature trees in our next Tree walk.
The CFT members then moved to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. There was not much choice in the menu but nobody had any complaint because we wanted to spend some more time together. We discussed several topics over breakfast which extended for nearly one and a half hours. Being a group of skeptics we could not but subject certain claims to scrutiny. Do mango leaves have antimicrobial properties and is that why they are hung on entrances, we wondered. How long and how much area would that sanitizing effect cover, we were intrigued. If tying tubelights are harmful to trees would street lights be equally harmful? Or is the proximity of the tubelight that harms the trees we questioned.
The information about certain trees products that were used in Ayurveda gave rise to our favorite discussions on Science based medicine vs. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. To ponder how our ancestors would have determined which part of a particular tree would cure a particular ailment is fascinating. However we hope that people would not fall for the scam of CAM that “Ancient wisdom in medicine is to be cherished. Or Anything herbal is safe. Or Herbal remedies are chemical free.” To quote Steven Novella from here:
The notion that something is magically safe and/or effective simply because it’s natural is a common logical fallacy in our culture, carefully cultivated by the supplement and other industries to remarkable success. There is, however, no operational definition of what constitutes “natural” and there is no scientific reason to think that a substance that occurs in nature should be safe for human consumption or have any medical qualities.
In fact, science based medicine is the only form of medicine that has made a serious and systematic attempt to understand the actual cause of disease and to treat those causes whenever possible. Taking an antibiotic to eradicate an infection is not simply suppressing symptoms. Medical treatments fall into several categories: curative, therapeutic (disease modifying), prophylactic (preventive) and symptomatic. All are valid and useful treatments. Of course we try to cure whenever possible, but many chronic diseases cannot be cured by our current technology. Many can, however, be significantly modified. We cannot cure diabetes but we can significantly alter the course of diabetes with various treatments (lifestyle and medicines). Many science-based treatments prevent complications or reduce the risk of disease or the negative consequences of disease. I cannot cure migraine, but I can give treatments that will significantly reduce the number of migraine attacks. And finally many treatments are symptomatic, something which is very important to quality of life and greatly appreciated by those who need them.
There were several mentions about mythology and folklore and though almost all our members are atheists and did not believe in any of the supernatural stuff we stayed interested to know the stories. All of us had grown up hearing these stories and we realize that mythology gives a lot of insight about our ancestors, their beliefs and traditions. We were eager to know the stories involving the trees because it was amazing to see how beliefs and practices had evolved.
Special thanks to the Nizhal team for engaging with us through mail even after the Walk concluded. To our query on street lights they emphasized that it indeed had an impact on the avenue trees. They added that it was always better to have street lights glow below the branches focusing on the roads/streets rather than above the trees. Thereby the negative impact on the trees and associated species is reduced and roads /streets would be well illuminated. They clarified that the mythology cited during the tree walk was to highlight how it had masked scientific reasons. Only the stories were transferred from generations to generations without highlighting the real scientific base behind it, they opined. The mythology was shared by them to create an urge in the minds of the participants to analyse if such mythology really contained any scientific basis. They felt that there was a large scope for scientific research if we did not ignore such mythology.
The Tree walk was very interesting and had made us curious to learn more about the trees we observed. I, for one, had made a list of the trees that were covered and read about each one of the tree, thanks to the world wide web. The CFT members passionately discussed about the possibility of conducting a Tree walk wherein we could talk more about the Ecology, Evolution and Adaptation of Trees. Then we worried whether the general public would find it boring. But then we reassured ourselves saying that Science can be packaged in a captivating manner and of course, we would not leave out the mythology and the folklore since they are charming too. We particularly wanted to tell the public more stories similar to the one about the spellbinding relationship between the fig tree and the fig wasp.
Then reluctantly, as ever, we bid our goodbyes but not before discussing when the next meet could be and who would be making a presentation then. Wait for the announcement – the topic is an interesting one and would lead to a lot of absorbing discussions!
PS: A beautiful documentary has been made on the incredible relationship between the fig tree and the fig wasp (‘one mighty enough to withstand the vagaries of nature and the other tiny enough to pass through the eye of a needle!’) This documentary is exceptionally well-made and is an essential viewing for everybody.