Society

The capital’s grand old rubber tree

The giant rubber tree in the Museum-Zoo compound   | Photo Credit: Aswin V. N.

The afternoon sun beats down and, as usual, a dozen visitors rest in the shade of a giant tree opposite the parking space in the Napier Museum compound. Thousands of weary visitors have rested beneath its canopy over the decades and continue to do so even today. Unbeknownst to many, it is the oldest known rubber tree in Kerala they are resting under!

“Many were surprised when one fine day the Rubber Board announced the significance of this floral giant. Even today people who see it or sit beneath it everyday don’t have any idea it is a rubber tree that is giving them shade. Hardly anyone reads the board on the tree,” says G.R. Rajagopal, superintendent of the Museum garden. The story of the tree goes like this.

During the second half of the 19th century, the British had actively started developing rubber plantations all over South East Asia. In 1876, 28 saplings were brought to Nilambur from Sri Lanka and out of this two were sent to Vishakham Thirunal Ilayaraja in 1880, the then ruler of erstwhile Travancore.

One of these was planted in the museum garden and it has remained there ever since. But rubber, itself, as a cash crop was introduced in Kerala much later in early 20th century by the company Periyar Syndicate and the first plantation was at Thattekad. “Out of the first batch of trees, all except one was cut down at the time of re-plantation. This tree survived till 1990s and I remember writing an article about it just before it fell. If that had survived, we would have had two of these grand old trees. The soil base, upon which visitors rest nowadays, was built around the museum tree for extra support,” says P.G. Salim Kumar, former Joint Rubber Production Commissioner.

While plantation rubber trees are cut down within 30 years, the museum giant has stood the test of time.

The tree, according to the records, is over 130 years old and it shows. With giant branches spreading out from the thick trunk and almost as tall as some of the biggest trees in the compound, this is not the smaller specimens that you find in the plantations of rural Kerala, but one you might find in rain forests of Brazil where the species came from.

“We have neither tapped this tree for latex nor cut any of its big branches to reduce the size of the canopy. That is one reason why it has managed to grow all these years,” adds Rajagopal.

Tree Walk founder S. Anitha says, “That is one of the trees that we show school children, when we take them for a Tree Walk in the museum compound. The story of Chico Mendez, a Brazilian rubber tapper and environmentalist who was assassinated, is shared with the children under the tree.” She believes that the museum rubber tree is the perfect example of what happens when humans don’t interfere with nature.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 10:13:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/in-thiruvananthapurams-napier-museum-compound-stands-a-little-known-rubbery-secret/article22979740.ece

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