The Saga Tree

Coralwood tree is a beautiful and unfortunately an underutilized tree of India. This useful tree has long been an important tree in Southeast Asia since ages. It is a hardy, fast growing tree that requires relative little maintenance. The beautiful tree has red, glossy seeds due to which it is also known as Red Bead tree (Adenanthera Pavonina/रतनगुंज, थोरला गुंज).

The tree is not only used for ornamental purposes, but it has many other uses also. Firstly, Red Bead tree is very beneficial to our environment. It is a valuable agroforestry species. The tree can fix the atmospheric nitrogen and thus help rejuvenate soil. Further, it also provide useful mulch. The small leaves break down easily, giving a good green manure. It is compatible with most tropical field and tree crops, making it suitable to use in integrated production systems. It can be interplanted among field & tree crops such as spices, coffee and coconuts or along field borders as part of a windbreak . The tree resprouts new branches easily & so is not damaged by harvesting for fodder. The leaves can be used a supplemental source of fodder, as the leaves are fairly high in digestible crude protein (17-22%). It also acts as a host plant for butterflies like Plain Nawab. 

There are historical accounts from Southeast Asia and Africa of using all parts of Red Bead tree for traditional medicines. In our Ayurvedic medicine, various parts of the tree are used against rheumatism, gout, headaches, migraines, dysentery, diarrhoea, tonsillitis etc. In Ancient India, the ground seeds are used to treat boils and inflammations. The bark was used to wash hair as it contains saponin. A red dye is obtained from the tree and used by the Brahmins in India to make religious markings on their foreheads and for dyeing clothes. The tree also yields very good charcoal. 

The interesting fact about its red, glossy seeds is- They were used in ancient India for weighing gold, silver & diamonds, because the seeds are curiously similar in weight, four seeds making up about 10 gramme. In fact the name 'Saga' is traced to the Arabic term for 'goldsmith'. Isn't that funny?! The seeds are also used as beads in jewellery, necklaces, rosaries and as toys.  The ground seeds can produce an oil which was used as an industrial lubricant. Seeds are probably eaten and dispersed by birds. The seed coat is extremely hard. For cultivation, manual scarification &/or immersing the seeds in boiling water for one minute may increase the chances of germination. The hardy tree can grow on variety of soils..from deep, well-drained to shallow & rocky.

The Red Bead tree is extensively cultivated as an ornamental for planting along roadsides and in urban areas, though notably for its red, glossy seeds; the flowers are equally beautiful in light creamy yellow to orange colour, with a sweet fragrant smell. Individual flowers are small and star-shaped, with five tiny petals. The fast growth and spreading crown of light & feathery foliage offer attractive shade, making it suitable for plantation in gardens.

The Devotional Fruits

The use of this tree in India can be traced back to as early as 1,000 BC. Indian Jujube, Indian Plum or more common, Ber (Ziziphus Mauritiana/ बोर, बोरी) is a beautiful, spiny, evergreen medium-sized tree. The tree whose greatest quality is its ability to thrive and produce fruits in arid or semi-arid regions.

The Ber is an important tree in the dry regions as it grows readily & quickly on poor ground. It grows vigorously and has rapidly developing & exceptional deep taproot system, a necessary adaptation to drought conditions. Ber tree may be erect or wide-spreading, with gracefully drooping thorny branches & zigzag branch-lets. It can withstand severe heat, frost & drought, hence it is planted in dry areas and on sites unfit for other crops. It coppices very well and can be easily propagated by seeds or root suckers.

Ber has number of uses to its name. An apt description of its value is that Ber produces the three vital 'f's that desert dwellers require- fruit, fodder and fuel. It bears heavily with nutritious fruits, excellent as Agroforestry species, one of the few trees that can be used to host lac insects, makes good fodder and has some medicinal properties too! One idealist describes this species as "a gift of mother nature which symbolizes the productive capacity of the seemingly infertile ecosystem".

The fruit is nutritiously rich & delicious in flavor. It contains vitamin C much higher than apples or citrus fruit & second only to guava. It is also high in Beta Carotene & vitamin A. The ripe fruits are mostly consumed raw or even dried, but are sometimes pickled or used in beverages, candy making .

This thorny tree makes good live fencing & is an excellent Agroforestry tree to use in hedges. The tree has been planted for shade and windbreaks. Its a suitable species to aid in fixation of coastal dune sand. Its leaves are readily eaten by camels, cattle, sheep, goats and are considered nutritious. These leaves also make excellent mulch as they bring deep seated nutrients to the surface layer. In India & Queensland, the flowers are rated as a minor source of nectar for honeybees. The honey is light and of fair flavor. The Indian Jujube is one of several trees grown in India as a host for the lac insect, Kerria Lacca. The leaves are also gathered to feed tasar silkworms. Highly priced tasar silk is the only silk commercially exploited in the tropics. The tree also makes excellent charcoal.

In traditional medicine of Ayurveda, the leaves, fruits, bark & even roots are used against various ailments. Ber is used to treat a variety of ailments including: colds and flu, malnutrition related diseases in children, convulsions, indigestion. The oil from seeds is believed to have potential as a treatment for skin disorders or even as biodiesel.

Other uses include tanning, dyes and shellac which is obtained from resinous lac, in the manufacture of gramophone records, polishes, fine lacquer work, sealing wax and varnishes. An oil is pressed from seeds which, due to purity, lack of odour, resistance to rancidity, is used as natural base for creams & ointments, pharmaceuticals, heating oils, plasticizers, fire retardants, high pressure lubricants. A wax is also obtained from seeds, used in candles, polishing wax for cars, furniture, electrical insulators etc.

In our great epic Ramayana, there is a mention that Lord Rama delightedly had the half-eaten fruits, ber, from Shabari, an old tribal devotee of Rama. These fruits have further significance in the epic when Meghnad (Ravana's son) attacks the two brothers and only Lakshmana becomes unconscious, but Rama is saved because he have had the Jhootey ber of Shabari. This mention shows the importance of the tree.

Despite of being such a useful tree, Indian Jujube is never planted or made to grow near house & city gardens. In fact, the tree plays important role in ecosystem. It attracts number of small birds and insects, including butterflies & moths. Other than Babool, it is the most preferred habitat by sparrows & alike small birds. The adjacent photograph shows a natural habitat of House Sparrow comprised of the Indian Jujube. Some might think that the tree will compromise the beauty of their garden. But the truth is- Indian Jujube will increase its beauty with lots of small birds!

The Flamingo Bill

The Agati is an awesome tree with beautiful, showy and eye-catching flowers. It is also known as Flamingo Bill (Sesbania Grandiflora/हातगा, अगस्ति) due to resemblance of its flowers to the bill of Flamingo birds. It is a very fast growing tree that produces forage, food, fertiliser, green manure and holds promise for reforesting eroded wastelands throughout tropics.

The Agati tree combines very well with agri-culture. It is often maintained in gardens and around crop fields for its contribution of nitrogen. It has excellent root nodulation which fixes nitrogen. It is a well-suited perennial for dense planting, growing for short periods and ploughing under to improve soil before planting food crops. The light shade cast by its canopy does not block much light, allowing the growth of companion plants. Falling leaflets, flowers & pods make excellent green manure or mulch and recycle nutrients to the ground, thus improving soil fertility. Furthermore, it is well-suited for ornamental purposes due to its giant showy flowers. Hence Agati is one of the perfect trees suitable for plantation in urban societies & gardens. It has also been used as a living fence and to shade nurseries & some crops such as coffee, tea, cocoa, and as windbreaks for citrus, banana & coffee.

Be it its leaves, seed pods or flowers, all are edible and nutritious too! Flowers are the most widely used part and are eaten as a vegetable in India. It can be used as a common vegetable, even raw or steamed & cooked in soups, bhajiyas and stews after the stamen & calyx have been removed. Hence these flowers are sold in the market. Young leaves can also be eaten, usually chopped fine & steamed, cooked or fried. Tender pods are eaten as string beans.

Leaves of Agati serves the purpose of fodder not only for livestock but for butterflies also. It is an excellent supplement to dairy cows fed predominantly grass hay. The tree produces leaves for fodder within 4 months of establishment. Even tender pods are valued for nutritious fodder. The leaves contain 36% crude protein (dry weight) & vitamin A. The most effective method of feeding the fodder to ruminants is to supplement with it up to 15-30% of the total diet. Because of its high protein content, Agati should not be solely fed to animals but should be combined with a roughage that is low in protein and high in energy, such as rice or maize straw.

The Agati tree also provides a clear gum which is used in foods, adhesives and tannins. Its medicinal properties include antibiotic, anthelmintic, antitumour and contraceptive actions. The bark is considered as a tonic & antipyretic, a remedy for gastric troubles, colic with diarrhoea & dysentery. In India, all the parts of Agati are reputed to cure night blindness. The root is a well-known medicine for malaria. The principal medicinal effects are due to the tree’s astringency, hence it is used against inflammation, venom, bacterial infections and tumors.

Agati is outstanding in its ability to tolerate water-logging and is ideally suited to seasonally waterlogged or flooded environments. When flooded, they initiate floating adventitious roots and protect their stems, roots and nodules with spongy, aerenchyma tissue. Another outstanding feature is its tolerance of both saline & alkaline soil conditions. Agati can be propagated easily by cuttings & seeds.

There is another species from the same genus which has got some controversy to its origin..Common Sesban (Sesbania Sesban/शेवरी, जयंती). Though some experts consider this tree as a exotic species, it has a long history of use in India, primarily as a green manure and a source of 'cut and carry' forage.

Common Sesban has many similar properties to that of Agati food, fodder, fertilisers, nitrogen fixation, ornamental, windbreak, shade and even some medicinal properties. It has beautiful yellow coloured flowers and this coppiceable tree can be propagated easily by seeds.

In India, Sesbanias have had a long history of agricultural use, primarily as green manures and as sources of forage. Being legumes and ability to improve soil condition, these trees has proved to be popular as a fallow species and as a important agroforestry species.

No rose without a thorn!

Here is the most ignored, underestimated & least valued tree, at least in urban area. Unfortunately, that's the area where it needs the most! It is never planted near house, societies or in gardens and even the grown trees are cut due to its thorny branches. But this thorny tree has much to offer..both, to humans as well as to birds & wildlife.

Babool tree (Acacia Nilotica/ बाभूळ, बाभळी) is the important indigenous species throughout India, particularly in arid & semi-arid areas. The tree is particularly important in India's drive to recover wastelands.

Babool has number of uses to its name. Almost every portion of Babool is used for various purposes. This sturdy tree is useful in agroforestry, apiculture, soil improvement &  its conservation. Generally, it is used for fodder, agricultural implements, tannin extraction, tooth brushes, ayurvedic medicines & shampoo.

The tree improve soil fertility by adding organic matter & releasing nutrients through litter fall. The main advantage of this tree is its fast biological nitrogen fixation, ability to establish on nitrogen-deficient & drought prone soils and suitability for agroforestry systems. Thus it can be used in rehabilitation of dry lands. The tree also finds place in the list of pollution-tolerant species.

The green portions of Babool & its pods form a valuable fodder in arid areas. Its leaves are very digestible & has high levels of protein. Hence favoured by cattle, goats & sheep. It can tolerate browsing & coppices fairly well. It makes an impenetrable fence & a good protective hedge because of its thorns. Recommendations based on research results suggests that it grown on 8 year rotation along field boundaries assures good profit for farmer. The bark has high levels of tannin which are used for tanning leathers. It also gives good quality charcoal. The tree makes a good host plant for growing Sandalwood (Santalum Album/चंदन) and for lac insect,  which produces lac, an important source of shellac. The gum is used in paints & medicines and as a substitute for gum-arabic. It may be used as a demulcent & astringent or for conditions such as gonorrhoea, leucorrhoea, diarrhea, dysentery or diabetes. The green pods are an important source of natural antioxidants.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the admirer! And this absolutely true in case of Babool. Its aromatic flowers appear in globulous heads in a bright golden-yellow color and are popular bee forage. Pods are tomentose, deeply constricted between seeds giving a necklace appearance. Interestingly, due to its thorns, the tree is favoured by small birds like sparrows, sunbirds, prinias & munias. The thorns act as a protective barrier against larger birds making this tree a nesting site for these small birds. The tree is one of the only few natural habitats available for sparrows. So together with various high-pitched voices of small birds, butterflies & bees; isn't the tree look wonderful?!!

This almost-evergreen & sturdy tree is easily propagated by seed (seldom planted in gardens), self sown in many areas. Soaking seeds in water for 12-24 hours gives good results. Babool can tolerate & thrive on degraded saline or highly alkaline soils. The tree is salt tolerant & can grow near the sea, even along salt marshes. It withstands extremes of temperature from -1° to 50° C. It also tolerates extreme drought & needs very little water. Probably, that's the reason the tree is used to fight desertification. It is even resistant to temporary flooding & can grow in waterlogged soils for long periods.

Another deciduous species of Acacia namely Cutch tree (Acacia Catechu/खैर) is also an important tree in Indian agroforestry. It gives two commercially important products catechu & cutch. Catechu as a edible product katha and Cutch is used as a tanning agent for leather, a dye for canvas, fishing nets, mail bags etc. It has got medicinal properties that can be used to treat diarrhea, dysentery & wounds. The tree also serves as a host for lac cultivation & its leaves are used as fodder.

There are two more native species which are used in Indian agroforestry practices. White Bark Acacia (Acacia Leucophloea/हिंवर) has great potential as a reforestation species for degraded sites. It grows well on alluvial or infertile soils also. The tree fixes atmospheric nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria which enables it to survive on infertile sites. Gum Arabic Tree (Acacia Senegal/कुम्ठा) is highly valued for centuries for gum-arabic production. It plays a secondary role in agricultural systems, restoring soil fertility & providing fodder. This deciduous tree is important for desertification control through sand dune stabilization and wind breaks. It protects wastelands from being further degraded & even tolerate industrial pollution.

All of them are very useful, ain't they? Its very true to say, there in no rose without a thorn!