Rooted in the past

HERITAGE TREES

trees of bangalore A mango sapling grown from the seed of a tree that was planted during Tipu Sultan’s times. Photo courtesy: Meera Iyer

The culture of greenery in Bangalore traces its roots to the Dewans of Mysore, British regents and kings like Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, who were true blue tree lovers. Bangalore has many important lung spaces such as Lalbagh, Cubbon Park and several smaller gardens. Added to the parks and gardens, the streets and roads of Bangalore are shaded by beautiful flowering trees. The earlier Palegars and rulers of Bangalore had also planted several trees in the City, in addition to several temple trees already existing.

Scientists visiting the Tata and Raman Institutes added to this greenery by planting several exotic ornamental trees. From 1982, the Forest Department further greened the city by planting lakhs of trees in the avenues and open areas of the City in addition to the earlier efforts of the erstwhile BDA. Among these, there are several majestic, large-sized trees standing loftily in the parks and along our old City roads. Some are rare, environmentally useful, mammoth in size, and of historical background. All these trees make up the natural heritage of Bangalore and serve as important green landmarks of the City.  

Today, though, as the City grows, there is the danger of losing these lofty trees. We have already lost many of them. In view of this concern, these heritage trees need to be identified and preserved for all times to come. At present, the Dodda Aalada Mara on Mysore road is the only giant heritage tree that is getting all the required care and attention.

Heritage trees are selected on consideration of their rarity, age, size, species, historical background, environmental value, etc. Such trees that dot the City are the ficus species, for instance aswatha (ficus religiosa), aala (ficus benghalensis), atthi (ficus racemosa, syn. F. glomerata), goni mara (ficus drupacea syn. F. mysorensis), Krishna’s Butter Cup (ficus krishnae), the long-leaved mohwa (madhuca longifolia), bakul (mimusops elengi), the yellow-flowering muttuga (butea monosperma variety lutea), neem (azadirachta indica), mango and tamarind among Indian trees.

To this list of species can be added some exotic trees on consideration of their rarity and uniqueness, like the Splendid Amherstia, Rose of Venezuela, Christmas trees etc. Bangalore has the uniqueness of having old, ancient, and giant-sized ficus and the long-leaved ippe (madhuca longifolia) trees, which are not found in such large numbers in any of the Indian cities.   

Keystone species

Ficus trees are ‘keystone species’ that have large ramifying effects on the ecosystem through direct and indirect pathways, which are crucial to the overall health or function of the ecosystem. Ficus trees bear fruits all year round, and support a broad spectrum of frugivorous birds.

During an observation, about 20 different species of birds were seen on the goni mara (ficus racemosa) when in fruit. Extinction of keystone species is likely to cause major changes in the urban ecosystem.

Ancient trees also support birds of prey. In a personal observation, a pair of spotted owlets were seen breeding in a natural hole of a ficus tree on a busy street of Vijayanagar. Owls keep the population of rats under control, that are causes for many diseases. 

Ancient long-leaved ippe trees are another landmark tree species of Bangalore, which are also found in some specific places like at Melkote, Mandya etc.

Its seeds yield a valuable oil used in medicines, (recently in soap-making), burning lamps in temples etc. These grow into large, lofty sizes and look beautiful when in new flush of leaves. They were planted by our ancients in front of temples and along older roads. There is an ancient bakul tree (mimusops elengi) in the sprawling Palace of Tipu Sultan at Bangalore which I discovered last year.

It is a huge and healthy tree, about 300-250 years in age and has a lot of history attached to it. The tree is supposed to have been planted by either Hyder Ali or his son Tipu Sultan. A mango tree planted by Tipu Sultan still stands in Lalbagh. There are three to four Christmas trees (Araucaria columnaries syn. and A. cooki) at Lalbagh, which not only flower but bear fruits every year, rare floristic occurrence in the whole of India. Arboriculturists across the country annually flock here to collect the rare seeds of Christmas trees.

Several countries in the world have already awakened to the importance of the heritage trees in their regions. At Singapore, a Heritage Tree Scheme was announced as early as in August 2001.

To support this initiative, a Heritage Tree Fund was established with the help of well-known banks with substantial initial donations. The fund was used to kickstart a conservation programme to safeguard heritage trees in that country and to promote appreciation of their natural heritage. Steps were taken to protect heritage trees in other countries like the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA etc.

A decade ago, noted ornithologist Zafar Futehally and I went round the City documenting ancient ficus trees. We had also contacted the authorities to preserve these trees, as a result of which an order was issued not to cut ficus trees in the city as they were environmentally friendly and supported a number of colourful birds. But, one wonders if such conservation efforts have been followed up.

A heritage tree committee should be formed under the chairmanship of the Forest Minister, with associate members like the BBMP, Departments of Forests and Horticulture, nature conservationists and noted landscapers. Immediate steps should be taken to prepare a list of heritage trees available in the City.

A heritage tree register needs to be opened with details like their serial numbers, location, size, species, age, historical back ground etc.

Orders should be issued not to damage or remove these trees. Plaques should be provided for these trees giving essential details like their  serial numbers, the species, age, size etc. Private enterprises need to be approached to adopt these trees and to provide funds for their overall preservation etc. 

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