At a time when the relevance of planting native trees has come to the fore, Nanal, a city-based environmentalist youth group has documented rare and endangered species of plants and trees under the initiative ‘ Mannin Marangal ’.
In the last two years, they have carried out walks and events to various pockets in and around Madurai to identify area-specific trees. “So far, we have identified over seven sacred groves in the district and around 12 trees that are regarded as Gods in the villages,” says Tamil Dasan, a member of Nanal. “The idea is to redefine and rebuild the relationship between humans and trees. Presently, we seem to have lost the ties our forefathers cherished with trees and plants. There’s a pressing need to revive our sense of belonging towards native trees.”
People see trees at various levels and the most common tradition is to regard trees as Gods, says Karthik Kamaraj, another member who has worked on the initiative. “Other than the cultural relationship, trees are regarded for the medicinal value and source of livelihood. During our walks, we came across interesting practices in villages. For instance, the very concept of sacred groves (Kovil kaadu) was a way to protect forests, where every family in the village would take turns to safeguard the grove.”
Nearly 500 sacred groves have been identified in Tamil Nadu. The biggest grove in Madurai district is the Vellimalai shrub forest at Idayapatti that’s spread over 150 acres. “The tradition of sacred groves finds mention in the Sangam literature and inscriptions. Certain native trees are associated with rural deities and worshipped,” says Karthik. “On a trip to Sathyamangalam, we documented the practice of the Solagar tribes who plant a wild tree in the place where they bury their dead. The tree is later regarded as incarnation of the dead person and they even call the trees as their ‘thatha’ or ‘paati’. They nurture a deep relationship with plants and trees.”
“Tree plantation has become a fad these days. Though people keep planting trees, they choose the easy growing ones such as arali or the gulmohar tree, which are not native,” rues Tamil Dasan. “Introduced species proliferates faster and destroys the native varieties. An example is the Seemai Karuvelam that has become a threat. Even the honey bees and insects don’t identify the flowers of introduced trees as sources of nectar and hence pollination doesn’t happen. The Pagoda tree (Plumeria Alba) that’s found in most temples is native to Central America and hence the tree doesn’t fruit at all in India.”
“It’s found that a number of insects, birds and other worms exist in a tree’s canopy. So, if we lose a single tree, we lose the biodiversity,” says Tamil Dasan. He cites the example of Calvaria Major, an extinct tree native to Mauritius and its relationship with the Dodo bird. “When the Dodo bird became extinct dude to rampant hunting, the trees couldn’t be saved either, because the seeds of Calvaria Major could germinate only if ingested by Dodo. Likewise, trees play a vital role in the ecosystem. They support numerous other species and hence it’s important to save them from extinction.”
The group has now compiled their walks into a book that lists over 500 species of wild native trees. They are in the process of collecting seeds for the endangered trees and developing a nursery of native plants. Some of the trees that are identified are marutham, kadambam, thettha, nochi, velvelam, iluppai, athi, puliya maram, alinji and usil. “We have been planting palm trees on tank bunds as part of the initiative. We hope to bring back some of the lost native trees,” says Karthik.