Of late, I have been spending a lot of time observing trees. It doesn’t matter whether I walk, run, or drive on the road, my eyes inevitably follow the trail of trees on the side, making me marvel at the height, shape and the majesty of every big tree I see. Being part of Telangana ku Haritha Haram (Green Garland for Telangana) programme— a flagship initiative of the state government to increase the tree cover— gave me great insight into trees and their role in our society and environment.
As I learned more and more about trees, what really struck me is the inferior status trees occupy in our imagination.
We are endlessly captivated by different species of animals— Tigers, leopards, elephants, and rhinos have their own special niche in our books and documentaries. BBC, NatGeo and Discovery spend millions in filming the lives of these animals. But, when was the last time you saw a documentary on trees? When was the last time you went on a jungle safari and stopped by to explore a tree? Our jungle safaris are rarely about the jungle.
All trees are viewed alike, as monolith structures with a trunk, a few branches, and some leaves. But if you observe closely, every tree has an incredible story to tell. The canopy, the crown, the shape of the leaf, the fragrance of the flower, and the softness of the bark convey interesting clues about its origin and life story.
I believe some of our indifference stems from our lack of knowledge about trees. Studies have only begun to discover the astonishing social life of trees and how they feel and communicate with each other. Maybe once we understand their true significance, we wouldn’t be as disinterested.
Be that as it may, the benefits of a tree for the environment and the society have been well established. Yet, tree plantation is often seen as a problem of the prosperous. But many studies have proved them to be a powerful tool to curb air pollution, stop stormwater runoff, and help in reducing the temperature in cities. Among all the tools we have, trees offer one of the highest ROI in terms of promoting public health.
Many of us are earnest in wanting to plant a tree. But, before you plant one, there are a few mistakes you want to avoid, the most critical one being planting the wrong tree. Let me give you an example.
You might have come across a tree species called Conocarpus Erectus which is pervasive in our towns and cities. If you knew the adverse effects of this tree, you would think twice before planting one.
Hence, knowing what type of tree you are planting, what it will grow into, its impact on the environment is as critical as planting a tree. Infact, in some cases you might be causing more harm to the environment than doing any good by planting a wrong tree.
So, what’s a good tree to plant? – I’d say a tall (at least 5 ft) sapling of native variety. Why a native variety? Native varieties, by definition, have evolved to adapt to the local soil and climate. An exotic species, on the other hand, demands a lot of resources for its conservation. Some of them even impact the local ecosystem adversely.
In the post below, I have compiled a list of common, native species of India along with their characteristics as well as the advantages of planting them. By the end of this article, I hope to persuade you to plant one.
Banyan — Ficus benghalensis — Marri
Giant of giants. The immortal one. The national tree of India.
Few sights are as majestic as a mature Banyan tree. It grows incredibly wide, with a canopy so dense that it houses an ecosystem within. Countless birds, bees, insects, and animals are sheltered by a Banyan. Its root system is like a reservoir, storing ground water and preventing surface water runoff. It traps UV light, provides shade and maintains a cool temperature beneath. Its benefits to the ecosystem are unparalleled. A Banyan is a fantastic tree to plant in parks, on the roadsides or in public institutions.
Yet, for some reason, a lot of misinformation has crept into our psyche and we don’t plant this tree anymore. It is quickly disappearing from our cities, villages and neighbourhoods.
It’s time to bring back Banyan’s past glory. If you are planning to plant one tree, let it be this one.
Make Banyan Great Again.
Tamarind — Tamarindus indicus — Chinta
A colossus. The Tamarind tree stands as a symbol of our culture, tradition and community. Though it grows slowly in the initial years, it is extremely resilient and has an average life span of 200 years!
Tamarind trees are considered sacred— in the villages, you find people praying to deity placed under this tree. These trees also serve as important landmarks where the whole village community gathers to discuss social issues (called Racha Banda in Telugu). They are privy to the fiercest of debates and the deepest of conversations.
Most of our parents’ childhood is associated with this tree. I remember my father telling me that when he was a kid, he could never imagine buying tamarind from the market. A single tree in the neighbourhood was enough to feed the whole community.
Sadly, this tree, too, is fading out from our villages and towns. There’s never been a better time to plant them in big numbers. It can be planted in parks and homes, but the best place to plant it is on the road side.
Mango — Mangifera indica — Mamidi
Any celebration in the house means decorating the door frames with ‘Mamidi Toranam’.
The tree grows immensely big, provides fantastic shade and produces fruits by the tonne. A summer saviour!
Ideal for plantation in open areas, homes and even on the road side. With the monkey menace becoming unbearable by the day, it will be a good idea to plant such fruit bearing trees en masse inside the forests.
Jamun — Syzigium cumini — Alla Neredu
Tall, evergreen, fast growing and fantastic. Jamun tree is a favourite of the squirrels and birds for the tasty fruit it produces. The tree doesn’t need much maintenance except for occasional watering. It thrives in Indian climatic conditions.
Besides being tasty, the fruit is rich in vitamins and antioxidants.
Jack Fruit Tree — Artocarpus heterophyllus — Panasa
A medium sized tropical tree that can grow in the most difficult conditions with little water. Its leaves have a striking dark green shade with a stiff texture. If trees are rated by beauty, I’d rank this tree very high. I’ve taken to this fruit recently and it’s delicious!
The tree is well suited for planting in parks, gardens, homes and public institutions.
Gulmohar — Delonix regia — Turai
In summers you might have seen many Indian streets and roads dotted with bright red flowering trees. That’s Gulmohar. If you are a 90s kid, chances are you would have probably used the tree’s flowers to play cockfight with your friends.
It’s a fast growing tree well adapted to Indian climatic conditions. It can be planted in our homes and offices, but the best place to have it is on the road side. The more trees there are in a series, the more stunning it looks.
Copper Pod — Peltophorum pterocarpum — Konda Chinta
Many people confuse this tree for Gulmohar. But you can distinguish both the trees from three characteristics.
Flowers of a Gulmohar are red and those of Peltophorum are yellow. Gulmohar’s tree bark is pale and smooth, whereas Peltophorum is rugged and dark. Also, the seed pod of a Gulmohar is much bigger.
This tree grows really fast and has a wide canopy, providing fantastic shade.
Rain Tree — Samanea saman — Nidra Ganneru
The tree with the most stunning crown. Strong contender for the best looking tree. You’d be hard pressed to capture the whole tree with your mobile because of its immense spread. From a distance, the tree looks like a giant umbrella.
Its leaves fold at night giving the moniker Nidra Ganneru in Telugu. I discovered recently how sweet its seed pod is. Try it next time!
This tree is not really native to India, but it has been naturalised after its introduction many decades ago. A rain tree grows unimaginably fast and is best suited for planting on the road side and large open spaces.
Two rain trees on either side of the road is a beautiful sight to behold. Travelling under it feels like you are going through an indoor bio- dome.
Indian Medlar — Mimusops elengi— Pogada
Elengi is evergreen, dense, scented, and absolutely stunning. A mature tree looks like a perfectly shaped globular ball. You can easily recognise its leaves from their wavy borders. The tree’s fruit attracts a lot of birds, bees and insects. It’s an average sized tree and is ideal for planting on the median, footpaths and narrow streets.
Sacred Fig — Ficus religiosa— Raavi
The tree you’d find in every Hindu shrine. The tree under which Gautama Buddha got enlightenment. The tree whose exquisite leaf shape served as the design inspiration for India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. Perhaps no other tree is as embedded in Indian art, culture, tradition, and history than the Peepal.
Sacred Fig is both resilient and ferocious: You’d find a sapling coming out of a concrete corner and very often its roots penetrate rocks, crevices, and walls.
You can recognise it from a distance from its light bark. It grows immensely tall and has a vast canopy, giving shade and cooling a large area underneath.
When under a Peepal tree, close your eyes and listen to the rustling sound the leaves make at the slightest of winds. You have to experience it to feel it. Nature at its very best.
Kadamba— Neolamarckia cadamba— Kadamba
Evergreen tree with a striking, large leaf. Doesn’t have a wide crown, but grows tall. Ideal for planting at home, median and road side avenue. It produces Kadamba fruit which is known for its medicinal properties.
Bhagavata Purana has frequent references to Kadamba. Folklore has it that Lord Krishna is very fond of this tree.
Indian Beech — Pongamia pinnata — Kanuga
Deciduous and flowering. In spring, when it wears new, glossy leaves, the tree looks stunning under the shining sun. Its little white little flowers dot the ground beautifully and when it rains, the flowers move like little boats in the stream.
Its leaf is not eaten by cattle, making it suitable for planting on the village roads. It can even double up as a green fence around a structure. It’s a resilient species and can grow in a variety of soils. It has a lovely, dense canopy and gives good shade.
Neem — Azadirachta indica— Vepa
Abundant yet exceptional.
It is known for its drought resistance and can survive in the harshest of conditions. Neem is known to trap particulate matter and protect against pollution. Given its resilience, it’s a fantastic tree to combat desertification. A mature tree provides great shade, reduces the ground temperature and surface water runoff.
If you are unsure of choosing which tree to plant, just pick a neem tree and you’d be right. Neem can be planted in the backyard of a home, large open spaces, schools, offices, streets and on the road sides.
Indian Almond — Terminalia catappa — Badam
Easily identified from a distance because of its unique canopy. Its branches grow in tiers, resembling a person with outstretched arms. Because of its wide canopy, it’s a fantastic tree for shade. The tree is deciduous and the fallen leaves are red when shed, adding colour to the pavement. It’s ideal for planting at home and offices.
Indian Mahogany — Swietenia macrophylla — Mahogany
Tall, fast growing semi-evergreen tree with lovely, glossy leaves. Its crown spread is narrow, making it suitable for plantation in the median and beside narrow roads.
Flame of the Forest — Butea monosperma — Moduga
Wild and beautiful. Known for its stunning bright orange flowers. In full bloom, few other trees can match the beauty of a Moduga.
In the jungle, among a spread of green, these trees stand out like a fire flame. This tree is an integral part of tribal culture: the colour extracted from its flowers is used as natural dye and for medicinal purposes. Its leaves are strung together to form a biodegradable plate.
Because of its propensity to attract many species of birds, this tree forms a critical part of the local ecosystem.
Golden Shower Tree — Cassia fistula — Rela
In full bloom, with its dangling yellow flowers, this tree is a sheer delight. Adds wonderful aesthetic to the town streets and your backyard garden.
Indian Fig — Ficus racemosa — Medi Chettu
Being a ficus species, its roots spread wide in search of water. Each tree produces a mega ton of fruit. It’s a common sight to see squirrels shuttling along its branches. It’s a fast growing species suitable for planting in institutions, large open spaces and road sides.
Indian Cork — Millingtonia hortensis — Akasha Malle
Generally we’d associate flowering species with small shrubs, but Millingtonia is an exception. It boasts of towering heights and sweet scented flowers. It’s not for nothing that its name in Telugu literally means Sky Jasmine.
Plant them on either side of the road in a stretch and get blown by the aroma and beauty it adds to the street.
What we need in our cities and parks are trees, not small shrubs or exotic plants that please our eyes. Ornamental plants and decorative shrubs may have their place in the environment, but when the land is scarce and resources are limited, we need to prioritise tree plantation.
Unlike buildings, cars, and roads, trees are appreciating assets. We just need to find a small patch of soil and plant a sapling and take good care of it for the first two years. For this small investment, the compounded return a tree gives to society is just incredible. But I don’t want you to think of trees as some financial investment.
Trees are much, much more than that.
They are witness to our history, our traditions, our culture, our triumphs, and tribulations. When I look at them, what really strikes me is their patience. They are unhurried in their existence, unconditional in giving, and unshakeable in the face of adversity. There is so much that us humans can learn from trees.
This monsoon, I sincerely urge you to desist from planting exotic shrubs and ornamental plants. Plant trees.
As you age, you will see a part of yourself in these gentle giants.