It is that time of the year again when Bengaluru emerges from its shadow of being the “IT capital” and traces its roots back to the glorious ‘Garden City’ tag. Bursts of pink, yellow, and white along what is left of the city’s once famed green cover make it “Instagrammable” for reasons beyond its pubs, restaurants and skyscrapers.
Among the flood of social media posts dedicated to the flowering trees is one by a popular digital content creator who, while clicking photos of the luscious flowers, wonders, “Cherry Blossoms? Oh no, that’s in Japan,” before he goes on to just refer to the pink hues and continue enjoying them.
So where do these picture-perfect trees come from, and how do they add to the character of Bengaluru’s landscape?
“Bengaluru has an especially high tree biodiversity compared to many large cities of the world, as our research has shown. Some of the most spectacular flowering trees are the yellow and pink Tabebuias, Jacaranda, rain tree, copper pod, Gulmohar, African tulip, Pride of India, badminton ball tree, sampige, plumeria — but there are so many more, depending on which parts of the city you love to visit,” said Harini Nagendra, Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, whose book Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future documents them.
Native and from outside
Which of these are native to the city? Ms. Nagendra says some commonly found native species are neem, honge, tamarind, jackfruit, mango, peepal, banyan, and coconut, but it depends on what one defines as native.
“For instance, the tamarind, which we consider such an integral part of Indian cooking and biodiversity, is not native to India; it came from central Africa many centuries back, probably brought by Arab traders. Coconut, even more indisputably part of the Bengaluru treescape, is also not native if you dig deep into history. It may have been introduced to the broad Indian Ocean region as far back as two thousand years in the past, first going to Sri Lanka and the Lakshwadeep islands, and then making it to mainland south India,” she explained.
Ganesan Rengaian, Senior Fellow, SM Sehgal Foundation Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), said almost all trees in the city, other than Pongamia, are from other parts of the world or India.
“Trees such as Tabebuia, Jacaranda, Sapthodea campanulata, Kigelia Africana, Couroupita guianensis (Cannonball tree), Millingtonia hortensis (agasha malligae) are from outside India. Most of the plants in Lalbagh are from other parts of the world. The silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra), the grandiose individual from Lalbagh, is also from South America. But we have red silk cotton tree (Bombax ceiba) from the Western Ghats.”
Mimusops elengi, Madhuca longifolia (ippae mara, Mahua), Pongamia pinnata, Filicium decipens, Calophyllum inophyllum, mangoes, jackfruit tree, Melia dubia, Holoptelea integrifolia, etc could have been part of the jungle of the erstwhile Bangalore, he said.
Varieties brought by rulers
Ms. Nagendra said the foreign varieties were brought in by various rulers and administrators. “Tipu brought the eucalyptus, for instance. British and German horticulturalists — like James Cameron, superintendent of Government Gardens in the late 19th century, or Gustav Krumbiegel, who took charge of horticulture in Bengaluru and planted trees across Lalbagh and many parts of the city, imported trees from colonial territories, botanical gardens and sites of botanical exploration across the world.”
Mr. Rengaian added that, similar to human migration, plants also have been moved around the world for different purposes. “The trees from outside India were largely introduced during the European colonisation just to make the landscape ‘colourful’. The streets, gardens, and parks are part of the ‘civilization’ which accommodated the trees, and we consider them exotics today. Largely, these trees landed in Indian Gardens such as Lalbagh as part of the acclimatisation of non-Indian plants to be introduced into the Nilgiris, Dehradun, etc. Before they moved to Nilgiris, Chennai, Mumbai, or Delhi, they landed at Bengaluru or Kolkata Botanical Gardens,” he explained.
“Today, many horticultural industries bring in exotics by flouting the quarantine regulations or not minding that one day, they will become invasive exotics. Some of our public institutions also boast that as part of gardening efforts, they bring in many endangered species from other parts of the world,” he said.
How good are they for ecosystem
Does this mean that this celebrated variety is bad for our ecosystem? Yes and no, said Mr. Rengaian. “In fact, the whole of Bengaluru is a human-modified landscape, and little space is left for indigenous plants. Overall, we should give space for plants — indigenous or exotic — so that the animals will follow them appropriately. The animal guild at present in Bengaluru or any other city of India is more generalist and adapted to the urban landscape, and we cannot still hold on to indigenous plants. The lifestyle of humans today cannot accommodate more of indigenous plants and animals because of homogenisation or globalization of our culture,” he pointed out.
Ms. Nagendra, too, said that they have now naturalised, having been in Bengaluru for close to two centuries – local fauna also uses them, pollinates them, and inhabits them. I don’t think we should have a wholesale ban on ‘foreign’ species. That would be disastrous.
Need for protection
Going forward, in terms of planting in urban spaces, she said we need to protect our heritage trees, first and foremost. Then, we need a widespread, aggressive tree planting plan for the entire city which aims to plant millions of trees in public places – not in lakes, wetlands or grasslands, which have their own special ecology, but on roads, in parks, school and college grounds, office campuses and malls, and all other locations we can think of.
“The city is going to face repeated climate stress in the form of heat waves, air pollution, floods and droughts, and having more trees will make the microclimate more bearable and liveable. The sight of all these gorgeous flowering trees fills us with awe, beauty and a sense of peace and joy, all of which are becoming so rare in stressed, polluted cities today,” she pointed out.
Not only trees, but we should also have herbs and shrubs, added Mr. Rengaian. “We should change our attitude to provide space for plants too. Plants are magnets, and animals will follow them. We should introduce the younger generation to these plants and animals rather than live in our nostalgia. We should change our mindset that plants are no more our servants, rather treat them as co-inhabitants of urban space,” he urged.
“Above all, we need to plan ahead. We are cutting down hundreds of thousands of trees at an ever-growing pace. This is reckless and will come back to haunt us,” warned Ms. Nagendra, echoing the concern of several citizens and environmentalists.