The Great Indian Shelter

It is the most popular and remarkable tree of India. If asked anybody few names of trees, he/she is sure to name Banyan tree first! Banyan (Ficus Benghalensis/वड, वट) is a large fascinating tree which produces propagating roots which grow downwards as aerial roots. Once these roots reach the ground, they grow into woody trunks that can become indistinguishable from the main trunk.

Since ages, Banyan tree is worshiped in India. Rig Veda and Atharva Veda stipulate the importance of the tree for their inevitable role in human life. It is considered one among the most sacred trees. In the Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva is sometimes depicted sitting in silence, under the banyan tree, with the saints sitting at His feet. With its seemingly unending expansion, the Banyan tree symbolizes eternal life. This tree often shelters a little or larger temple underneath, but is offered worship on its own generally too. Married Hindu women worship the Banyan tree to lead a long and happy married life on the festival of Vata Savitri Purnima. Even apart from the worship, it is one of the most sheltering trees in the hot summer, with a large and deep shade. Many farmers have a large Banyan in their fields planted by their ancestors, and is worshiped before they plough the fields.

With high medicinal value, Banyan is often used as a herb to treat and cure number of diseases. The juice of the Banyan yields an inferior rubber. From the bark and young hanging roots a coarse fibre is obtained which is used for rope-making.

The tree may be propagated from seeds. The seeds should be sown as soon as they ripen. Naturally, the fruits are eaten by birds and mammals. Hence you will always find the tree loaded with variety of birds and mammals like squirrels, bats etc. The seeds are dispersed by birds and studies have shown that seeds that pass through the digestive system of the bird are more likely to germinate as well as sprout earlier. It often starts life in the same way as the Peepal, as an epiphyte.

It is a very beautiful tree, especially when the bright orange-red colored fruits appear. As the canopy gives nice shade, its shade was a usual meeting place for baniyas, Indian merchants in ancient times. Thus the tree got its name, Banyan. Traditionally it was found almost ubiquitously on roads and in village centres, the latter very useful for any formal or informal gathering to be conducted in a cool place or even for any poor person or a travelers to sleep under. The respect for this and other trees of this nature is thus linked both to the use and the worship as sacred. Banyan is also the National tree of India.

Another similar species of Ficus, the Cluster Fig (Ficus Racemosa/उंबर, औदुंबर, गुलर) is also a sacred, fast-growing tree, favourite of Lord Dattatreya. According to Vedas, the tree is given prominence as a means for acquiring prosperity and vanquishing foes. Unlike the Banyan, it has no aerial roots.

The most distinctive aspect of this tree is the red, edible fruits in short clusters, which grow directly out of the trunk of the tree. Those looking for the flower of the tree should know that the fruit is actually a compartment carrying hundreds of flowers. One might wonder how these flowers enclosed in a ball are pollinated. The flowers are pollinated by very small wasps that crawl through the opening in search of a suitable place to lay eggs. Without this pollinator service, the tree can not reproduce by seed. The seeds usually are dispersed by birds and animals.

In Ayurveda, Cluster Fig is supposed to cure more than 50 diseases. Like Banyan, it also is loaded with birds and mammals. The leaves are used as fodder.

Both of these trees were abundant in India a decade ago, ideal for road-side plantations. But nowadays, these sacred trees are being cut in the name of Urban Development and Road Widening. They are not even preferred near houses & societies as WE do not want the 'garbage' (fallen fruits & leaves) they create in good amount. But the fact is, their discard actually fertilizes and impregnates the soil, returning all the essential nutrients to it. Furthermore, they harbor great amount of wildlife, making it a must plantation species!

The Almondette Tree

You must have tasted the seeds of this tree, most probably in delicious deserts. But the tree itself is hardly known to anyone. Chironji tree (Buchanania Lanzan/चारोळी, चार) is a wonderful, medium sized, semi-evergreen species with straight, cylindrical trunk. Unfortunately and surprisingly, its medicinal as well as other uses and properties are losing its popularity among young generations.

Being one of the common tree in dry deciduous forests, the Chironji fruits are considered as one of the delicious wild fruits. As said earlier, the seeds are edible and are regarded as substitute for almonds. The seeds are regarded as substitute for almonds. These seeds in many cases are crushed to generate a powder that is definitely then employed for a flavoring or spice in lots of authentic Indian dishes. In addition to being employed for a spice, these nuts are occasionally useful to thicken sauces and stews. Making use of Chironji in preparing most of these dishes can lead to them using a faintly sweet flavor. The kernels have a pleasant, sub acidic flavour and are eaten raw or roasted. Kernel is of very high value in market. Kernel is rich in protein content (20-30%) and have high oil content (40-50%), which is highly nutritious.

Various parts of the tree are used in the Ayurveda as well as Unani system of medicine. The tree is reported to pacifies vitiated pitta, kapha and can be used in diarrhea, dysentery, skin diseases, burning sensation, cough, bronchitis,  nervous debility, cardiac debility, constipation, fever, ulcer, oligospermia and general debility. Its leaves are used in the treatment of skin diseases and fruits are used against cough and asthma. According to Unani system of medicine, leaf juice is digestive, expectorant, aphrodisiac, purgative, blood purifier and allays thirst.

Chironji tree yields tannin and used in tannin industries. An oil is extracted from the seeds and can be used as almond oil. It is used for delayed action in pharmaceutical industries for coating purposes. It is also good substitute to olive-oil. It is used as a host in lac culture and also yields gum. Chironji is a good species for afforesting bare hill slopes as well as for urban plantation.

The tree is propagated from seeds which are contained inside a hard shell. Before sowing, challenging task is to crack the shell carefully, as the fruit inside it is often extremely soft and tender. It grows moderately fast and tolerates drought too! Though in earlier times, the forests were full of them, now they are facing mass destruction. There is absolutely no or very less demand for commercial cultivation of the tree as fruits are directly collected from the natural wild trees occurring in the forest and marginal lands by tribal people. Occasionally the trees are cut partly or completely by the tribals to collect the fruits. Therefore, the species is facing a great threat. Unfortunately, many of the tree populations have been completely wiped off in the recent past due to developmental activities and want of agriculture land by farmers.

Are we going to do something to conserve the species which gives food and shelter to many birds and flies..?

Simple Sober Sissoo

Though it is known as a deciduous tree, it can gift you dense shade nearly year-round! The Indian Rosewood or popularly, Shisham (Dalbergia Sissoo/शिसम, शिसव) is an awesome almost-evergreen tree with many benefits to its name.

Shisham is a hardy tree which do not require much care. And with its multiple products, tolerance of light frosts and long dry seasons, this species deserves greater consideration for tree farming, reforestation and agroforestry applications. After Teak, it is the most important cultivated tree in India, planted on roadsides and as a shade tree for tea plantations. It is moderately fast growing tree which gives excellent charcoal, coppices well enough, gives good fodder, used for erosion control as a living barrier against soil movement. Hence it may be planted as one component of a multi-tiered home garden system, where it contributes several products. Probably, that's the reason Shisham is honored to be the state tree of Punjab.

Young branches and foliage form an excellent fodder. The foliage has normally been used as emergency feed when other fodder sources fail. It also is a useful source of honey. The honey produced is dark amber with a strong flavour. Many medicinal uses for its fresh leaves, dried bark, and wood rasping are reported from its native region. Shisham is reported to be a stimulant used in folk medicine and remedies. Oil obtained from the seeds is used to cure skin diseases. The powdered wood, applied externally as a paste, is reportedly used to treat leprosy and skin diseases.

Shisham is also known to have some pesticidal properties. It is propagated from seeds & cuttings. Seeds should be soaked in water for 48 hours before sowing.

Other agricultural uses include as a windbreak in Mango, coffee and tea plantations. These shade-loving crops also benefit from improved soil fertility under the tree. Due to its vigorous reproduction through suckers, it is useful for stabilizing eroding sites. It is therefore found in a variety of wastelands, where it is known as a colonizing species. The tree is known to fix the atmospheric nitrogen with the help of nodules. Also, heavy litter fall decomposes to enrich the soil with nitrogen, phosphorus and organic carbon. Thus improving soil fertility. 

The tree has beautiful whitish pink, fragrant flowers which appear in dense clusters. But in their absence also, it looks equally beautiful due to its  leaves which are leathery, alternate, pinnately compound. Shisham is widely used for ornamental purposes in urban and roadside plantings in the Indian subcontinent and in other parts of the world. The fact that makes the tree even more attractive is it has an unusual amenity use as a host for orchids. Hence it is noted as one of the most desirable trees for streets and backyards in many countries. It has also been used for landscaping along the shores.

Another species from the same genus, Black Rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia/दोंडूस, फणशी) is also similarly wonderful tree. It is predominantly a single-stem deciduous tree with a dome shaped crown of lush green foliage. It flowers abundantly in aromatic clusters of pinkish white colour creating a eye-soothening view. Furthermore, thought it sheds its leaves, it can hardly be found leafless. Due to these reasons, it attracts number of birds, butterflies and insects. Hence the tree need to be introduced in home gardens in urban societies.

Black Rosewood is often mistakened for Shisham, and practically, they both are similar to each other in every aspect, including their use in agroforestry, apiculture, hardiness, medicines, ornamental or soil improvement. It is a Nitrogen-fixing tree and gives the nitrogen-rich foliage which is widely used as a green manure and fodder. It is propagated by seeds or cuttings.

Both these trees are excellent choice for farmers as well as city dwellers.

The Kashmir Tree

Its name White Teak may reveal the importance this tree or other name, the Kashmir tree may give you the idea about its beauty. Popularly known, in India, as Gamhar or Shivan (Gmelina Arborea/शिवण) is very beautiful & useful species occurring naturally throughout greater part of India. Its a moderately sized deciduous tree with a straight trunk. It is wide spreading with numerous branches forming a large shady crown.

Gamhar is fast growing tree with simple, more less heart-shaped leaves. The flowers are large, showy, abundant, scented, varying from yellow to orange or brilliant orange to reddish or brownish-yellow. Many types of insects are attracted to the flower showing that the flowers may be insect-pollinated. Birds and bats, attracted by the smell of fruits, are the main seed dispersal agents.

It has suitable characteristics for agroforestry, with fast growth and ease of establishment. It is an especially promising fuelwood species because it can be established easily, regenerates well from both sprouts and seeds. The tree coppices well with vigorous shoot growth.  Leaves are regarded as good fodder for cattle and are also used as a feed to eri-silkworm. It can be browsed repeatedly without damage. It gives good quality charcoal. Flowers produce abundant nectar, which produces high-quality honey. Although able to compete with weeds more successfully than many other species, it responds positively to weeding and also benefits from irrigation.

In our ancient Ayurvedic medicine also, its bark, leaves, fruits, flowers and roots, all are used medicinally, against number of ailments from headache to leprosy. It may also recommended in combination with other drugs for the treatment of snakebite and scorpion sting. Other uses include a very persistent yellow dye yielded from the tree and fruit. 

Gamhar is a highly light-demanding species and regenerates naturally only in the open and on the edge of forests. It is an ideal choice for large-scale afforestation and reclamation programmes. It provide abundant mulch in the form of leaf litter. It is also valuable in coffee and cocoa plantations to protect young trees and to suppress invasive weed due dense canopy. In some areas of India, the fruit is edible. It is moderately frost hardy. It has the capacity to recover from frost injury. The tree is termite and fire resistant. It is often planted as an ornamental, shade tree.

The tree can be propagated by seeds, cuttings, and stumps. For quick germination, the seeds should be soaked for 24 hours. It is commonly planted as a garden and an avenue tree; growing in villages along agricultural land, on village community lands and wastelands. This useful species is also a state tree of Meghalaya.