The palm tree was once profuse on the outskirts of Madurai. Sadly, the bountiful tree is vanishing from the horizon thanks to rapid urbanization.

Raju clasps his hands tightly around the dark trunk. He fastens the knot of the vadam around his legs and in about less than five minutes, he hops his way up the 25-feet tall tree, frog like. “These trees are dear to me. I embrace them everyday,” says Raju. The nungu seller is talking about the palm trees that have been a source of income and livelihood for the nungu-sellers. But now, the future appears bleak for them as the palm trees are rapidly decreasing. The city is expanding and the trees are felled to make way for plots, says Raju. “Once the Sivaganga Road used to be lined with palm trees and now there are few left. This is the reason why the price of palm has gone up.”

Environmentalists are also worried about the dwindling numbers. The panai marams are native to southern Tamil Nadu and it is also the state tree. “They are highly drought-resistant and can withstand excessive heat and are usually found in arid regions,” says D. Stephen, Assistant Professor, Department of Botany, The American College. “These trees help retain ground water. The trunk retains moisture in its tissues under the hard outer coat. The fruits are highly fibrous and retain water too.” “Palm trees act as a wind brake.” And that’s why, he points out, that palm trees were grown along tank bunds, the peripheries of paddy fields and on the outskirts of towns and villages. “They would reduce the damage caused by robust winds. In the olden days, rows of palm trees would also mark the boundaries of fields, villages and panchayat jurisdictions. People used them like fences.”

Many feel that the shrinking of agricultural lands and water bodies have caused the disappearance of palm trees. According to N. Chidambaram, Co-ordinator of Madurai Green project, about a decade ago, palm trees formed 22 per cent of the total tree cover of Madurai. “Now, palm trees constitute only seven per cent,” he says. He remembers seeing palm trees in abundance in areas such as P&T Nagar and Valluvar Colony in the city. “Thoothukudi district has a lot of palm trees. There is even a village called Panaiyur,” he says.

Apart from the rampant felling of the trees, the groundwater has also plummeted. It is difficult to grow palm trees. “Propagation of palm trees takes place on its own. People hardly sow the seeds. Even if sown, a seed will take at least six months to germinate and from then on, it will take decades to mature,” says Chidambaram. However, A. Baburaj, a retired Botany professor says that palm trees can be introduced to waste lands to make them productive. “Palm trees have the capacity to turn land fertile, since it needs very minimal nutrients and water. Though it’s a long process, it can be taken up to increase tree cover,” he explains.

Every part of the palm tree, from the trunk and leaves to the flowers and fruits, is used. Karthik, a tree-lover says, “Palm tree finds mention in folk literature and proverbs. It played a vital part in the livelihood of ancient Tamils and was hence compared to the mythical ‘Karpaga Vriksham’. The tree is revered as the sthala vriksham in many village shrines.” He points out that the tree was once the sole source of income for the toddy tappers of Southern Tamil Nadu. Toddy was banned in 1987, but other products were procured from palm trees such as palm jaggery, nungu, padhaneer and panankizhangu. “The trunks are used to make roofing of houses in the rural areas,” says Karthik. “Sadly, the panai-olai visiri (hand-fans made from palm leaves) are hardly found these days.”

Palm trees are also home to a number of birds. Varieties of parakeets can be found nesting in the holes on the tree trunk. The sturdy branches of the palm tree are the preferred place for the Baya weaver bird to build its nest. Dozens of them can be spotted dangling from the trees during early summer. Birder N. Raveendran points to Panagaadai, the Indian roller bird that only nests on palm trees. “Palm trees attract a lot of insects due to its sweet sap. And this in turn supports birds like Palm swift and Ibis,” he says.