Keeping track of Chennai’s trees

Nature in the city A banyan tree at Pattabiram station, and an Indian badam in Peravallur special arrangement   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

You may have been asked to stop and smell the roses, but have you ever stopped and stared at a tree? Really take in the shades and shapes of its leaves, the time of year it flowers, or bears fruit? Chennai-based Seetha Gopalakrishnan, who works in the field of biodiversity, has taken her tree watching rather seriously. She has joined the multicity FiftyTrees online project, to identify trees across Chennai.

Her selection criteria is fairly straightforward — the trees have to be in the vicinity, exert some nostalgic pull, and spark joy across seasons. Seetha works with the Care Earth Trust, which undertakes conservation of biodiversity for human wellbeing, through research, advocacy and capacity building. She explains her interest in Dendrology, “Actually it all started on Twitter in 2018, when Siddharth Agarwal, who runs water conservation project Veditum, spoke of really soaking in your surroundings and paying attention to the minutiae. My friend in Chandigarh, Manu Moudgil began identifying trees in his neighbourhood and posting them on social media, and taking a leaf out of his book, I began this passion project. The #Fiftytrees project is flourishing in Mumbai, Kochi, Bangalore, Chennai and a host of other cities.”

Old friends

Seetha’s Instagram feed is filled with little nuggets of nostalgia about her favourite banyan tree (known in Tamil as the aala maram), the Indian badam tree that forms a lush canopy on her terrace, and the ubiquitous moringa trees that have now captured popular imagination.

“For me, there has to be a personal connection. I’ve been tracing trees from my childhood neighbourhood in Perambur, and now in Nungambakkam, Egmore, Adyar, Peravallur and Kotturpuram. The moringa must get a special mention. My grandfather used the crimson sap (muringa pasai) that the bark exudes, mixed with hot water, to make the only glue that we used through childhood. It is only after I started this project, that I really got to delve deeper into so many facets of this unassuming species.”

Seetha’s paen to the palmyrah palm or panai maram, speaks of the economic and ecological significance of the State tree of Tamil Nadu. The palm is resilient in arid conditions, the elasticity of the trunk helps it bend without breaking so it is a perfect windbreaker and the fibrous root system protects against soil erosion, making it a perfect candidate for eris at Narayanapuram, Sembakkam, IIT-M and Guindy National Park.

Seetha peppers her botanic exploration with fun facts, and delightful detours, so you know it is not just an exercise in identification; it is an ongoing love affair with the story of the land.

The Chennai- resident has listed the botanical names of each of the trees so far (17 and counting) with historical context, and focus on form and function. “Since I work with an organisation that delves into local flora and fauna, I was blessed with a plant taxonomist, Muthu Karthick, who aided my education. I want to really take the project further, once I can move around freely.”

Not content with just posting about the project, Seetha involves her young daughter Rudra, by tinkering with leaf art and recreating and studying leaf patterns. Another lover of trees being moulded.

You can follow the project through the Instagram handle @seetha_gopalakrishnan or #fiftytrees.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 3:15:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/keeping-track-of-chennais-trees/article32578761.ece

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