A few kilometers away from Quilon (since renamed Kollam and now a city) town center, sprawled across little over forty hectares, nestled the strikingly fascinating coastal patch of verdant green called Tangasseri, environing a boys’ school, with another girls’ convent strategically located within hundred meters proximity, in addition to the Infant Jesus Church with its adjoining graveyard, and the Bishop’s palace in the vicinity (the church has in the recent past undergone a comprehensive makeover and elevated to a cathedral); also within a few hundred meters was the East West Club that played host to vibrant social gatherings of the local community during Christmas and new year’s eve till distant summers ago. The Arabian seaside fringed with palm trees, having a lighthouse and staggered ruins of ancient forts, was just a walk away from school. For the locals and the large number of alumni that passed through the portals of these institutions, Tangasseri’s recall is by its fond appellation of ‘Tangy’. Lined with Portuguese and Dutch style cottages and villas on either side bearing the hallmark of several hundred years of colonial hegemony, the approaches to the schools and the entire region is evocative of the country side in a Hardy novel and conveys the elation of listening to pastoral symphony # 6 of Beethoven, as I now relive the scenario that existed over a half century ago, when, as a young school boy in those halcyon days, the poetry periods in lower classes meant reciting rhyming verses of Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, Charles Kingsley, Tennyson, Browning and Wordsworth. A scene reminiscent of Kingsley’s “When all the world is young, lad, /And all the trees are green ; /And every goose a swan, lad, /And every lass a queen; / Then hey for boot and horse, lad, /And round the world away; / Young blood must have its course, lad, /And every dog his day” and Rossetti’s “Who has seen the wind? / Neither I nor you: / But when the leaves hang trembling, / The wind is passing through. / Who has seen the wind? / Neither you nor I: / But when the trees bow down their heads, / The wind is passing by” or the Browning nostalgia, “Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there, / And whoever wakes in England / Sees, some morning, unaware, / That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf / Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf, / While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough / In England – now!/ And after April, when May follows, / And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows! / Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge / Leans to the field and scatters on the clover / Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge— / That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, / Lest you should think he never could recapture / The first fine careless rapture! / And though the fields look rough with hoary dew, / All will be gay when noontide wakes anew / The buttercups, the little children’s dower / —Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower” and de la mare’s “A song of enchantment I sang me there / In a green green wood by waters fair / Just as the words came up to me / I sang it under a wild wood tree / Widdershins turned I singing it low / Watching the wild birds come and go / No cloud in the deep dark to be seen / Under the thick thatch branches green / Twilight came, silence came / The planet of evening’s silver flame / By darkening paths I wandered through / Thickets trembling with drops of dew / But the music is lost and the words are gone / Of the song I sang as I sat along / Ages and ages have fallen on me / On the wood and the pool and the elder tree”.
My passion for plants and trees must have evolved from the young and green world portrayed in those poetic rhythms and patterns, which in due course kindled interest in gardening and maintaining the varieties of potted as well as grounded roses, crotons, ferns, jasmine and hibiscus around my parental house. Returning home from school, the evening routine was to water the plants and tend it for a while before the scheduled run to the nearby field for a game of football. Growing up in years, the interest expanded to observation of trees of different species in myriad terrains, to thrill of climbing the mango, sapodilla, jackfruit and tamarind trees around the vast area in my maternal village house and enjoying the overview of the environment while partaking of the, not necessarily ripe, fruity delights, perched, sometimes precariously, on its branches.
Preceding human life by millions of years, trees are Nature’s wonders and a great gift to mankind. Trees play an important role in purifying the air around us. They breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen that sustains our life, as opposed to human beings whereby both are at opposite sides of beneficial breathing cycle of carbon dioxide and oxygen. Trees are also very necessary for having good rainfall as it attracts rain bearing clouds, prevents soil erosion and conserve the earth’s fertility. Ranging from food, medicines, raw materials for furniture, construction and industry, to sheltering the eco system with its foliage cover, enhancing aesthetic appeal of landscape with floral décor and lush greenery to releasing life sustaining oxygen, trees are integral to our lives.
Although “tree” is a term of common parlance, there is no universally recognized precise definition of what a tree is, either botanical or in common language. In its broadest sense, a tree is any plant generally formed of elongated stem, or trunk, supporting the photosynthetic leaves or branches at some height above the ground level. Trees are defined by height, with shorter plants classified as shrubs. The minimum height defining a tree may vary from half a meter to ten meters. Large herbaceous plants such as papaya and banana and monocots such as bamboo and palms are also trees, even if they are not considered as such under more precise definitions of trees. Aside from its structural descriptions, trees are commonly defined by use, as plants yielding lumber.
The collective tree population assumes various names depending on its presentation. A wooded area, usually with no undergrowth, is called a grove, while a larger area covered with trees and undergrowth is defined as a woodland or forest. An expanse of woodland consisting of trees cultivated by planting or artificial seeding is known as a plantation and an area of land specifically planted with fruit or nut trees is an orchard. Many biotopes are characterized by the trees inhabiting them, examples being rainforest and taiga. A forest in its natural, unexplored and unexploited state is a virgin forest and the same, if old and naturally developed, is called an ancient woodland. A landscape of trees scattered across vast grassland is a savanna.
As probably the first visible life forms on earth known to be in existence for 370 million years, trees are endowed with long life spans extending to several thousand years. The tallest known specimen shoots up to a height of 130 meters. Its woody trunk and branches make it possible for it to tower above other life forms to make optimum use of sunlight. Trees combat the greenhouse effect that causes global warming arising from excessive greenhouse gases created by burning fossil fuels and wanton destruction of tropical rain forests. Heat from the sun, reflected back from the earth, is trapped in the thickening layer of gases causing rise in global temperatures. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, removing and storing the carbon while releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere. It is estimated that an acre of mature trees absorb the equivalent of carbon dioxide emission from a car motoring a distance of 41860 kilometers. Trees absorb odours and pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ammonia and sulphur dioxide, and filter particulates out of the air by trapping them on their leaves and bark. Trees cool the environment and shelter it from harmful ultra violet rays with its foliage cover and by its leaves releasing water vapour into the air, in turn also conserving energy by reducing air conditioning needs. It regulates the flow of rain water to the ocean by breaking rain water and making it flow down its trunk to the ground below; when mulched, trees act like a sponge that filters water naturally and directs it to recharge ground water table. The same process helps prevent soil erosion and regulates the flow of pollutants into the ocean. Whether through its yielding of flowers, fruits and timber or as in its aggregated scale as forests providing habitat for animals and wild life or enhancing the landscape or as creative and spiritual inspiration, trees have afforded sustenance and human retreat through the ages. Trees stabilize the soil, prevent rapid run-off of rain water, help prevent desertification, have a role in controlling climate and help in the maintenance of biodiversity and balance of the eco system. With an estimated 100,000 species, the number of trees worldwide may equate to twenty five percent of all living plant species, with its greatest number concentrated in tropical regions, many of which have yet not been surveyed by botanists, making for inadequate data on ranges and diversity of trees.
Structurally consisting of three parts, the tree starts with the roots that serve to anchor it to the ground and gather water and nutrients from the soil to transfer to all parts of the tree in addition to storage of energy. The first root produced by a newly germinated seedling is called the taproot which goes vertically downwards. Within a few weeks, lateral roots branch out from the sides growing horizontally through the upper layers of the soil. In most trees, the taproot eventually withers away leaving the wide-spreading laterals with the function of holding and sustaining the tree. It is has been observed that some trees are interconnected through its root system, forming a colony. These interconnections happen through a process known as inosculation, a kind of natural grafting or welding of vegetal tissues. Though the roots are generally subterranean, some species of trees have evolved roots that are aerial to serve the twin purpose of providing stability to the tree and to obtain oxygen from the air. An example is the Indian banyan tree with roots, looping out of the trunk and branches, descending down into to the ground. Many large trees have buttress roots flaring out from the lower part of the trunk. These brace the tree like angle brackets to afford stability and reduce sway in heavy winds. Some trees have root extensions popping out of the soil to get oxygen when it is not available in the soil due to excess water. Moving upwards, the purpose of the trunk is to raise the leaves above the ground for exposure to sunlight; the trunk also performs the task of transporting water and nutrients from the roots to the aerial parts of the tree and to distribute the food produced by the leaves to all other parts including the roots.
The leaves of trees are in various shapes and sizes, evolving in response to environmental pressures including climatic and predatory. Leaves may be broad or needle-like, simple or compound, lobed or entirely smooth or hairy, delicate or tough, deciduous or evergreen. The needle like leaves of coniferous trees are compact and structurally similar to broad-leaved trees. They are adapted for life in environments where resources are low or water is scarce. Water may be limited in frozen ground and conifers are found in colder places at higher altitudes and latitudes than broad-leaved trees. In many cases their branches hang down at an angle to the trunk thereby decreasing the likelihood of them breaking when weighed down by snow.
When it comes to reproductive strategies, many trees are wind pollinated probably as an evolutionary adaptation to take advantage of increased wind speeds high above the ground, particularly those that produce pollen before the leaves emerge. Pollen is produced in vast quantities to allow for low likelihood of any particular grain landing on an appropriate female flower. Wind-pollinated flowers of broad-leaved trees are characterized by a lack of flamboyant parts and alluring scent but copious production of pollen, often with separate male and female flowers, or separate male and female trees. The male flowers may be high up on the tree, often in the form of dangling catkins and the female flowers may be lower down the tree. Interestingly, the pollen of pine trees contains air sacs giving it adequate buoyancy that enables dispersal as far as 800 kilometers, a phenomenon that must have prompted Thomas Carlyle’s comment “when the oak is felled, the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze”.
Seeds, varying greatly in size and shape, are the primary reproducing mode for trees. Some of the largest seeds come from relatively smaller trees and some of the smallest seeds are from the largest species of trees. The immense diversity in tree fruits and seeds reflects the multifarious ways that tree species have evolved to disperse their offspring. The seeds of conifers, the largest group of Gymnosperms, are enclosed in a cone and most species have seeds that are light and papery thus blown over considerable distances once free from the cone. Sometimes the seed remains in the cone for years waiting for a trigger event to liberate it. Fire stimulates release and germination of seeds of the jack pine, and also enriches the forest terrain with wood ash and removes competing vegetation. Similarly, numerous Angiosperms (flowering plants) including acasia cyclops and acasia mangium have seeds that germinate better after exposure to high temperatures. Other seeds such as apple pips and plum stones have deliciously fleshy receptacles and smaller fruits like hawthorns have seeds enclosed in edible tissue that are eaten by birds and animals and the seeds are either discarded or pass through the gut in consumption and thence deposited in bird’s droppings or animal’s excreta farther afield from the parent tree. In many cases, this process improves germination. Nuts and large seeds are gathered by animals and hidden in caches for later consumption. Many of these caches are never revisited and the nut casing softens in the rain and frost and the seed germinates in spring. Pine cones, similarly hoarded by squirrels and raided by grizzly bears, progressively end up in dispersal of the seeds.
When we observe the evolutionary sequence, life forms evolved from marine organisms to tetrapods and anthropods. The earliest tree-like forms were tree ferns, horsetails and lycophytes, such as club mosses and resurrection plant, which grew in forests in the carboniferous period over 350 million years ago. As per fossils discovered as recently as 2007, the first tree is inferred to be wattieza, the predecessor of ferns and horsetails. From the conifers that flourished in subsequent Mesozoic era (245 to 66 million years ago) to the flowering plants that evolved during Cretaceous period and continued to dominate all through the Tertiary era (66 to 2 million years ago), forests covered most of the earth till the climate cooled nearly 2 million years ago to initiate the first of the four ice ages. The forests retreated from the earth as the ice age advanced, to re-colonize the land again during interglacials, as in the present age in which we all live. The span of an interglacial is about ten thousand years that slowly transitions to interstadial and stadial or a period of lower temperatures lasting for a thousand years or shorter, followed by glacial in the next ice age. This transition, as per geological estimations, is bound to be long in coming as the current interglacial may last another fifty thousand years or longer due to combined effects of orbital forcing and global warming.
Trees and other plant forms virtually straddle every conceivable area of life as varieties of food, inputs for industry, ingredients for medicine and in creating beauty in the form of art featuring in landscaping, tree shaping and bonsai. Some of the finest examples of landscaping, pruning and shaping of trees can be seen in the botanical gardens of Ootacamund, Singapore, Durban, Capetown, Johannesburg and Alexandria; the sheer beauty of some of those well preserved trees can hold one in such a trance as to make it difficult to take the eye off. Known as bonsai, the art of miniaturization evinced in growing a tree in a pot or tray, originated in China and spread to Japan over a thousand years ago. I have seen it in the Buddhist temple in Kyoto; viewing it makes one contemplative and marvel at the skill and ingenuity of the grower and the painstakingly long years of nurturing involved in cutting, seedling and, progressively, the meticulous crown and root pruning going into the process of confining a potentially huge tree in a small container. Tree shaping is the art of changing living trees and other woody plants into animal shapes or geometric or other fancy forms for artistic purposes and also to serve as useful structures. Practised as an art since several hundred years, tree shaping or topiary can be both a gradual as well as instant process; the gradual method is to slowly guide the growing tip through pre-determined pathways over a period of time whereas the instant method bends and weaves mature trees instantly into shape; tree trunks, branches and roots are grafted for artistic or functional purposes. The living root bridges, sweeping over small canals and thus utilized as an access to cross from one side to the other, nurtured and maintained by the hill tribes in chirapunjee, are one of the oldest examples of creating useful structures out of trees. Ornamental trees are cultivated by plant nurseries and horticulturists for planting in gardens and lending design embellishments to landscapes and parks covering aesthetic options in foliage, bark, flower colours, textures, scents and seasonality.
Moving on from its sustaining, utilitarian and aesthetic functions, trees occupy a significant place in the world religions and mythology in addition to literature, as alluded earlier. Venerated since time immemorial by various cultures, trees were held in special awe by the ancient Celts due to its many contributions; in Greek mythology, dryads were believed to be shy nymphs who inhabited trees. Dryads find mention in Milton’s Paradise Lost; John Keats refers to the nightingale as the ”light-winged Dryad of the trees”. Some of the African communities plant trees at the birth of newborns and the saplings are nurtured concurrently with the upbringing of children; as the trees flourish, so do children and if the tree fails to grow, the health of the child is considered to be in jeopardy. The flowering of the tree signified wedding time for the progeny and when the individual died , the spirit was believed to live on in the tree. Its roots going deep into the ground and trunk and branches extending towards the sky have served as the concept in many of the world’s religions to assume the tree as a spiritual entity that links the underworld and the earth and holds up the heavens. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is a central cosmic tree having roots and branches extending to various worlds and providing the dwelling place for several creatures. India’s mythological ‘Kalpavriksha’ is a wish-fulfilling tree that was one of the nine jewels to emerge from the primeval ocean. Icons are placed beneath it to be worshipped, tree nymphs inhabit the branches and it grants favours to the devoted. Trees are preserved in sacred groves as ambience to worshipped deities in India, China and Africa. From ancient Norse and Celtic mythologies, to the African and Indian cosmological thought, extending to the ancient Shinto faith in Japan, the tribals in the forests of Malaysia and the forest shrines in the hills of Kerala, Karnataka and other states of India, sacred groves provide relief and shelter from mundane aspects of life and are considered living temples. Folklore lays down supernatural penalties, that will befall on the perpetrator, if these groves are desecrated or destroyed. It is largely due these injunctions that many of the sacredly preserved groves enjoy a biodiversity far more than surrounding areas. In the Biblical story of creation, the tree of life and the knowledge of good and evil, was planted by God in the garden of Eden. Similar spiritual associations surround the Banyan and Peepal trees in Hinduism and the Bodhi tree in Buddhism. The white pine tree is the central character in the beginnings of democracy in North America when the Great Peacemaker formed the Iroquois Confederacy, inspiring the warriors of the original American nations to bury their weapons under the Tree of Peace.
Over the years, I have been able to grow a few trees around my house in Ernakulam like the pine, arjuna, golden apple, neem, gooseberry and golden shower. With the limited space at my disposal, I am looking forward to the challenge of growing an aquilaria, that normally thrives in the rain forests of north India apart from other south east Asian countries. To give free rein to my passion, I really wish for a farm house in the middle of a large estate that can be used to plant and bring up a wide variety of trees and thereby silently orchestrate a green symphony and jubilate like Houseman, “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now / Is hung with bloom along the bough, / And stands about the woodland ride / Wearing white for Eastertide / And since to look at things in bloom / Fifty springs are little room, / About the woodlands I will go / To see the cherry hung with snow”.
Trees are amazing microcosms of exchange and flow of water, nutrients and gases. Drawing sustenance from the earth, cooling water, refreshing air and the light of the sun, they grow in stature and strength eventually blossoming into flowers and fruits. They are earth bound and yet reach up toward the heavens, pointing to the source of all things. A universal symbol of antiquity, immense and enduring strength and many things including wisdom, protection, bounty, beauty and redemption, the tree is, veritably, like the creator as it abundantly sustains creation with its fruit, protection and generativity. There will not be anyone not wanting to appreciate the sentiment in Joyce Kilmer’s “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree… / Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree”.