Christmas Tree Walk

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A tree walk organised by EcoEdu on Christmas Eve offered fresh insights into the world of trees. The facilitators for the walk Ulhas Anand and Srinivas took the motley crowd that had gathered on a lovely Saturday morning to every nook and corner of Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens explaining the significance of some of the trees that dotted the green expanses.

The focus this time was the Christmas trees of Lal Bagh.

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The tree party started at the famous Lal Bagh Peninsular Gneiss a little past dawn and to start with there were a round of introductions. What followed was a stream of trivia about one of the city’s greenest spaces. During Tipu Sultan’s time, when the gardens were private and only 25 acres in area, the lake fell outside the boundary. It was only in 1819, when the British took over the gardens that Lal Bagh was open to the public and gradually grew in area. In keeping with Tipu’s legacy, plants from various parts of the world were continuously introduced into the gardens. The foreign species must have numbered around 300 or more. It was in the 1900s that the legendary botanist and superintendent of the gardens Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel brought in remarkable transformation not only to Lal Bagh but also to the umpteen roads and streets of Bangalore. He is largely credited with the initial road planning and landscaping of Lal Bagh and also planting flowering trees all over the city. Roads in Lal Bagh and also outside it were adorned with trees and shrubs of the same species. A fantastic idea considering that when it was blooming time entire roads had beds of yellow, pink, purple, white and so on depending on the species of trees that thrived there. Exotic vegetables were also introduced during this period. Apple trees were also nurtured in the city but the plan was not a success. Bangalore would not have been the Garden City it was if not for the yeoman efforts of the German gardener extraordinaire. Krumbiegal is also the brain behind the landscaping of Mysore’s Brindavan Gardens.

A pair of sapota (or chikoo) trees planted 170 years back still stand today and what is more they still bear fruit. The Christmas trees that we see today in Lal Bagh and other parts of Bangalore are not the real Christmas trees, they are from the Southern Hemisphere.  The ones that are found in the United States are the real ones. The Christmas trees of the US which are also called Douglas Fir are from the Northern Hemisphere. There are four kinds of Christmas trees (or pines as they are referred to in botanical parlance) in Lal Bagh.

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The walk began after the very enriching half an hour of arboreal info. The first stop was at a Woman’s Tongues Tree (also called Shirisha in Sanskrit). If you are wondering why that name Woman’s Tongues it is because when shaken during a breeze, the constant rattling sound made by the seeds inside the pod sound like women chit-chatting. Well, I doubt all ladies would agree.  The wood of this tree is very hard.

The focus again shifted back to trivia:

– Bangalore was once grassland. And like any grassland it was very transitory in nature.  During the rains, grasslands change to shrub forest in no time.

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– Gneiss rocks are very easy to mine. They come off as sheets. Gneiss rocks like the one in Lal Bagh are found only in the Deccan Plateau. They are also found in Greenland. In a gneiss rock, the white part is mica and the black part is iron.

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The next stop was at a blue agave plant which is a native of Mexico. Often seen along railway tracks, the agaves have the ability to hold soil. When they flower they have the tallest inflorescence which can grow up to 18 feet high. New plants grow from the seeds that fall from the inflorescence. The Incas and Mayans used the fibres of the plants to make ropes. In Mexico, the agaves are used to make tequila.

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The facilitators then took us to a Red Silk Cotton tree (Bombax ceiba). A native of India, the wood of this tree is soft and used in the match stick industry. The pods contain cotton-like matter which has the feel of silk. The cottony stuff is used to stuff mattresses and pillows. The tree is a favourite with mynas. They love feeding on the petals.

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A North Indian Rosewood tree (Latin: Dalbergia sissoo; Sanskrit: Sheesham) was our next stop. The tree is very popular in Indian mythology for its association with the Vikram-Betal stories. It was on this tree that the Betal (corpse) would be found hanging.  The wood of this tree is used to make furniture.

Attention then shifted to a tamarind tree in the vicinity. The name tamarind is derived from the Arabic word Tamar-i-hind. The tree is not a native of India. It probably originated from Africa. Once upon a time when the land masses of Asia and Africa were together, the trees probably sprouted from dispersal and then on became an integral species of the Indian subcontinent. The wood of the tree is very strong. The tamarind tree is a favourite with gamblers and is believed to be frequented by spirits. So watch out!

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We next trooped to a majestic rain tree close by. The canopies of a fully grown rain tree are a delight to photograph. The rain trees occupy a lot of space. Although the rain trees are a very hardy variety their branches are prone to fall during heavy rains and winds. The fruits are a favourite with children. They are crushed with stones and the resulting resin is shaped into a ball and used as a substitute for cricket balls.

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Just a stone’s throw away stands a White Silk Cotton tree which was our next stop. The spectacular tree is a native of North America and its flowers are white and reddish. Like the Red Silk Cotton tree, the fruits of the White Silk cotton tree too have cottony matter inside which is used to stuff mattresses and pillows. The trees have buttressed roots which is why they tend to fall off easily.

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We then moved to one of the most beautiful flowering trees found in Bangalore – the Cassia Javanica. There are six varieties of this tree each of which has flowers of a different shade of pink. When the flowers grow old they turn white. The fruits of the tree are long and they have a stink. The seeds are coin like. Talking of blooms, out came a couple of trivia from one of the walk leads, “Flowers that bloom at night are usually white as they do not need pollinating agents”.  “Jasmine flowers bloom at night and they have to be plucked before 9pm else the flowers will not have any fragrance.”

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After a very brief stop at an Indian Mast tree (mistakenly called the Ashoka tree by many) we shifted to a Fig tree (Ficus mysorensis).

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A discussion on the pollination of fig trees followed. The process is quite interesting and also very sad. The fig wasps are the pollinating agents of the fig trees. A female wasp enters a fruit through a hole and lays eggs inside. When she enters the fruit she loses her wings and after laying the eggs she dies. The larval stage takes place inside the fruit. Once the young ones hatch, the males make a hole in the fruit. They are blind and without wings. They mate with the female and die. The females leave the fruit through the hole and the cycle continues. So when you eat a fig, you will also end up eating dead male fig wasps! However, there are some fig trees which do not bear fruit.

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The next tree to visit was a Christmas tree, a Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii). Ulhas and Srinivas threw a lot of light on Christmas trees. They evolved during the time of dinosaurs and were endemic to some islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Most of the trees have lost their seed-dispersal agent and the seeds have to be dispersed by man.  Certain birds like cockatoos also disperse seeds. Deforestation has also led to diminishing numbers of trees. Fortunately, some forests of pines have been protected.

The Hoop Pine is so called because the bark of the tree peels into hoops.  Its girth is very broad. It was discovered by British botanist Allan Cunningham. Fruits of the tree are very big and very rare.

In between the talk on hoop pines, the walk leads tell us that all the Christmas trees found all over Bangalore are the progeny of the Christmas trees of Lal Bagh.

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The next stop was a very brief one at a Juniper tree, the berries of which are used as an ingredient of gin. The juniper trees have a very distinctive bark with vertical fissures.

From there the group moved to another pine, the Araucaria excels Hort, whose resin is extremely sticky.

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Many in the group were familiar with the popular Amla tree, a native of India, which was next on the list of tree stops. The Amla or gooseberry is rich in vitamin C and one fruit has the nutrient value of seven lemons. It is mostly used in jams and pickles. Sadly, the gene pool of the tree is fast diminishing because of unrestrained plucking of fruits. The tree is considered holy by Hindus and believed to represent Lord Vishnu. Many people worship the tree like this man in the pictures above.

The Alstonia macrophylla tree close-by is part of the family Apolynaceae and host tree to the Commander butterfly.

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The celebrated Palash (also called The Flame of the Forest) was our next stop. Also referred to as the Navagraha tree, it is revered by Hindus and is useful to have around. When the flowers bloom they resemble fire that is why the name The Flame of the Forest. The town of Plassey as in Battle of Plassey derived its name from the flower.

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The group next stopped at another avenue tree, the Camel Foot tree. The tree is so named because the leaves resemble the foot of a camel. The tree is very short-lived and prone to diseases. Like the Camel Foot tree, the Pride of India another avenue tree is short-lived as it is prone to diseases.

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Our next tree destination was the Fish Tail Palm, the bark of which is used to tap jaggery and the fibres of which are used to make ropes. The nuts of the palm look like arecanuts.

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Lal Bagh is dotted by many jackfruit trees. Now, this is one tree which everyone knows about. The fruits are a favourite with most of us. Next on the tree walk was this much liked tree. The jackfruit tree has multiple pollinating agents – monkeys, bats, and bees to name a few. The orange pigment on the bark is used to colour saffron robes. There are many varieties of jackfruits.  So the next time you visit a jackfruit tree, remember you are seeing one of many varieties.

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A series of trees later we reached another Christmas tree, the Araucaria cookie named after Captain Cook. The Araucaria cookie tree that we were at that moment looking at is the tallest tree standing in Bangalore.

The last tree in the tree walk, yet another Christmas tree, was the Araucaria bidwillii or the Bunia pine popularly referred to as the false monkey puzzle tree. The fruits of this tree which is a native of Australia, have a fleshy covering which are a favourite with aborigines. The aborigines hold a conference called the Bunia conference to feast on the fruits. After fiddling around with the leaves  of the Araucaria bidwillii, it was time to say goodbye yet again to my favourite place in the city. It is a lovely feeling to be with trees, the more time you spend the better.

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