The 25th Tree walk saw environmentalists and the common man rooting for increasing the green cover in Madurai

“The fruit of this tree is used extensively in Tamil cuisine. It tweaks the taste of even bland recipes,” says Dr. D. Stephen, Assistant Professor of Botany, American College. The 50-odd people standing under the huge Tamarind tree inside the Gandhi Museum ground nod in agreement. “Tamarind trees were once planted along the highways. They are drought resistant and serve as a source of livelihood in rural areas,” says Stephen. The 25th Tree Walk last Sunday was a milestone. Enthusiastic participants discussed ways to the improve tree cover in the Temple city and the types of trees that should be protected. The The two-year-old Tee Walk has been a monthly activity involving nature lovers who visit the greener parts of the city and spread awareness about the importance of trees.

“I saw such walks being in big cities, and that’s how the idea of having similar walks in Madurai was born,” says Dr. Badri Narayanan, one of the members who organised the group project. Ever since, DHAN Foundation, a non governmental organisation and Madurai Green have organised the walk. “Earlier, we had only few participants. Now, there are many more wanting to know more about trees. There is growing awareness among the regular tree-walkers,” says N. Chidambaram of Madurai Green. “We have learnt of so many rare and important species thanks to these walks.”

Leelavathi, a school student and a regular tree-walker, says that the walks have made her more sensitive towards trees. “I have grown two trees in my compound at home. I maintain a small garden,” she says. Velumani, another participant says that Tree walk was an eye-opener for him. “Earlier, I would never bother if someone was cutting a tree. Now, I voice my protest if someone is doing it. I fight with people in my locality and try to stop them from felling trees,” he says.

Dr. Badri says that since Madurai has a tropical climate for most part of the year, there isn’t much diversity in the tree species. “But,” he says, “there are certain trees that are native to the region and are yet facing extinction, only because they weren’t planted consciously.” He points to the legendary Kadamba tree that is hardly found these days. “Madurai was called a ‘Kadamba forest,” he says. “Likewise, we have also lost the Marutham tree.” He refers to Silapathigaram’s Madurai Kaandam. “In it there is a stanza that describes the scene in Madurai when Kannagi and Kovalan come to the city. It speaks of the existence of over 200 types of flowering plants on the banks of river Vaigai and it’s titled ‘Vaigai Vanappu,” says Badri. “Heritage is not just monuments. It also includes our ecology and biodiversity. We should preserve its richness and revive the lost tree varieties.” Some of the trees mentioned in literary works are Vahulam, Vengai, Veppai, Thaani and Thennai.

“Instead of planting the high-elevation species, more native trees should be grown. It’s an easier way of increasing green cover,” says Stephen, who also launched a book Madurai marangal 25 during the walk. The book enlists selected trees that are most commonly found in the Madurai region. “There are certain interesting trees such as the kudai panai that flowers only once in its lifetime,” notes Stephen. “Ooga is another unique tree that has adapted to the climate here though it originally belongs to Persia. It’s a coastal tree and can be found in abundance in Tuticorin.” In Madurai, a lone Ooga stands in Gandhi Museum and there is a pair in the American College campus. “It’s called as toothbrush tree, as people use the twigs as a toothbrush. The leaves are used in salads,” he says.

Bird-watchers, environmentalists and nature lovers in the walk reiterated how more trees would boost bird life in the city. “Planting trees belonging to the keystone or umbrella species such as the banyan, arasu, jamun and fig will attract more birds and animals,” says Stephen. “These trees produce a lot of fruits and their thick foliage provides a good nesting place for birds.” Birder N. Raveendran points out that the presence of one fig tree can help the barbett and bulbul varieties of birds to thrive. “The jamun tree is home to a number of animals such as monkeys, squirrels and bats,” says Raveendran.

In an attempt to raise awareness about the importance of trees among Madurai public, and to record the number of trees, a group of young environmentalists has started a project called ‘Maram Madurai’, wherein volunteers take an area-wise count of trees in the city. “The idea is to reiterate the relationship between man and trees. As part of the project, we will also end up creating a database of the tree types and numbers. We have roped in college students as volunteers and have started from the city centre and will later expand to the peripheries,” says Prasanth Kumar, the founder of the group.

Praveen, a volunteer says that he and his group of friends counted over 500 trees in K.K. Nagar, their first area of survey. “We count trees on the roadsides and inside compounds. Some residents were enthusiastic and informed us about the trees in their gardens.”