A rare tree’s journey from Madagascar to Madurai

A 100-year-old Baobab tree found inside the staff quarters area of The American College campus in Madurai. Photo: R. Ashok   | Photo Credit: R_ASHOK

The pair stands an impressive 15 metres from the ground – tall, strong and rooted firmly; they rise above the antique brick building in the background. “They have been standing for 130 years and are as old as the Main Hall,” informs Professor M. Rajesh about the baobab trees inside The American College campus. The trees identified as a native of the Madagascar Island in Africa, are a century-old legacy left behind by the American missionaries. Baobabs are huge tropical trees that live for thousands of years and grow over 18 metres in girth. It’s awe-inspiring to see a real old baobab, the trunk of which looks like a monstrous pillar and the branches spread out like giant fingers.

The temple city has four of this rare tree – three of them stand tall inside the college and there is one at the High court. “The tree at the court is relatively younger,” says Rajesh, who also suggests that the oldest Baobab perhaps is the one near the staff quarters inside the college campus. It is much bigger with a trunk so huge that it takes eight people to hug the tree.

“It should have been planted during the time of W.M. Zumbro from the first batch of missionaries and the principal of the college,” speculates Nagarajan, the Zoology lab assistant, whose grand father was employed as a gardener at the campus. “For a long time, we didn’t know the rarity and antiquity of the tree. But we all noticed its enormous size and found it unique.” According to Rajesh, the trunks of 1000-year-old baobabs become hollow inside and form a natural cavern. “They are used as bus-stops and tea-stalls in Africa,” he informs.

Around eight species of baobabs are found all over the world – six in Africa and one each in Australia and Asia. The ones found in Madurai are classified as Adansonia Digitata. “Though not native to the region, baobabs are highly useful. In Africa, every part of the tree is used in traditional medicine and is compared to the ‘Tree of life’ mentioned in the Bible,” says Rajesh. The baobab fruit is said to be high in Vitamin C and Ascorbic acid used in the treatment of cancer. Though a huge tree, baobabs support little birdlife as the branches and leaves are not dense. During summers, the tree sheds its leaves and the branches stand bare. However, bats draw nectar from the flowers and it helps in pollination.

“The baobab trees are not just a part of the college heritage but also a pride of the city. The tree is said to store millions of litres of water in its roots. At a time when water scarcity is looming large, it’s vital to turn to nature,” says M. Davamani Christober, the Principal of The American College. “We plan to identify and introduce such rare interesting species of trees and plants to our students. As part of the eco-initiatives, we have also dug a percolation pond in the campus to harvest rainwater and recharge ground water table.”

Baobabs are also known by the folklores and fables attached to it. Since the branches of the tree resemble the roots, it is referred to as an ‘Upside-down tree’. An African fable goes that the tree was uprooted from heaven and thrown on to the earth since it acted proud and offended the gods. Since monkeys feed on the baobab fruits, the tree is also called ‘Monkey bread tree’. In Tamil, the tree is called as ‘ Pappara Puli’ or ‘ Aani puli’. It is also called ‘ Yaanaikaal maram’ since the base of the trunk resembles the feet of an elephant. Apart from Madurai, few baobab trees are found in Chinmaya Vidyalaya School at Rajapalayam and the Theosophical Society in Chennai.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 1:19:04 PM |

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