Trees that induce sexual activity, treat skin ailments and light lamps -- some of the fascinating trivia that Surekha S discovered when she tagged along with the Bombay Natural History Society on a heritage tree walk around Fort. For our readers, we've charted a handy guide so you can proceed on your own trail, in search of these green celebs
"Plassey (a familiar mention in our history books) got its name because of the Palash trees that were abundant in the area. The flowers of the Kamini were used in the earlier days to excite women for sexual activity," -- Dr Marselin Almeda is rattling off information about India's trees at breakneck speed to a group of tree lovers on a balmy Sunday morning.
Cycas revoluta closely resembles the palm tree
It's 8 am and this bunch of 25 enthusiasts has assembled outside Churchgate Railway Station to participate in a heritage tree walk organised by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Armed with botany books, notepads and cameras, it's a wake-up call for a few dope-eyed, yours truly included, to soak in the tree talk. Botanist Dr Almeda along with co-guide Dr Ashok Kothari was at the helm of proceedings.
The group led by Dr Almeda (second from left) are all ears
Looking around, it's a mixed bag on call -- from bumbling businessmen to curious housewives, budding naturalists and serious doctors. The youngest was a 12-year-old boy accompanied by his parents. The otherwise bustling Fort business district was a picture of calm. Soon, we begin to notice the refreshing green spaces that dot this part of town.
Canon Ball Tree (Couroupita Guianensis) Pics/ Bipin Kokate
The first question that was thrown at Dr Almeda centred on the definition of a heritage tree -- "There is no concrete definition. Whatever you consider as important can be classified as heritage. Trees of religious or historic importance are most often categorised as heritage trees."
Stop 1: Opposite Churchgate Railway Station
We came across the first heritage tree on our trail opposite the Churchgate Railway Station. The Cycas Revoluta closely resembles the palm tree; Cycases are living fossils and not native to India. There are only two species found in Mumbai -- Cycas revoluta and Cycas circinalis. Because of its small numbers, it is considered a heritage tree.
Once we crossed the impressive Western Railway headquarters, the Canon Ball Tree (Couroupita guianensis) is the next along the route. It's so called since its fruit resemble the shape of a canon ball. The British brought the tree to India. Alternatively, it's called the Shivalinga or Nagalingam tree because of its unique flower structure and carries an obvious religious significance. The tree is about 40 years old and though it sheds its leaves three times a year, it takes 10 years to flower.
Stop 2: Veer Nariman Road
The group took a left to join this important road; it's here where you will spot the Karanja tree (Pongamia pinata). "Around Borivali, there is a place called the Karanja Valley that was so called because of the abundance of these trees," shares Dr Almeda. The leaves of this tree have medicinal properties and can treat many skin ailments. The oil extracted from the seed was previously used to light lamps. A compound called Pongamol extracted from its seeds is used in sunscreen lotions, as it absorbs UV rays.
A few steps ahead you will spot the Chinese Fan Palm tree (Livistona chinensis). With fan-shaped leaves, it was probably the easiest for dendrologists to name. Used to make thatched roofs, its origins can be found in China.
A little further on Veer Nariman Road stands the Kamini tree (Murraya paniculata). It is a small tree outside the Bhikha Behram Well -- a place of worship for the Parsis. The flowers of the tree emit a lovely fragrance and were used in old times to excite women for sexual activity, we were told. This tree is native to Japan.
Stop 3: Oval Maidan, Karamveer Bhaurao Patil Marg
As we neared the vast expanse of the Oval Maidan, we spotted a row of Wild Almond trees (Sterculia foetida). An import from Java (Indonesia), Wild Almonds are commonly called Jungli Badam in Hindi. Despite the name, its seeds are non-poisonous Clinging Climberor (Monstera deliciosa) was another interesting plant that caught our attention. It is an epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant) and has its origins in Hawaii. It depends on a host plant for support and benefits the plant in return as well. By now, visions of a Hawaiian tropical forest clouded the mind. Only to be brought back to Mumbai by Dr Almeda's informative commentary.
"The Dracaena," he added, "is also called the tree of dragon's blood as it produces a bright red resin called the Dragon's blood. The red resin was used in ancient times as medicine," the group was in rapt attention, some took notes others listened in intently while some clicked away at these green celebrities.
Stop 4: Mumbai University Campus
The Tree of Heaven (Amherstia nobilis), with its striking red flowers occupies a place of pride inside the Mumbai University campus. Only three of these are found in Mumbai. The remaining two are at Rani Baug (Veermata Jijamata Udyan). Countess Amherst, the wife of Lord Amherst, Governor-General of India in the 1820s, planted this tree.
Stop 5: Elphinstone College
A few interesting stories emerged as we approached the trees around Elphinstone College near Kala Ghoda. The Narvil plant (Premna lignum Vitae) was believed to increase the milk content in women who were pregnant and hence considered a life-giving plant.
Further ahead was the Putranjiva (Putranjiva roxburghii), another plant again considered useful to women. It was believed that if a woman wore the seeds of the plant, she would bear a son. "Of course, we hope the tree is not cut down today by the government, saying it is sexist," joked a group member.
Stop 6: Museum Gardens and Rampart Row
We had reached the gardens of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. A few from the group were exhausted by now, though most were eager to soak in more about these lesser-known treasures. The Kadamb tree (Anthocephalus cadamba) in the garden had a few mythical aspects attached to it -- it's where Lord Krishna teased the Gopis. It is also believed that Krishna stole the clothes of the Gopis and hid it on this tree. The tree was not planted here by anyone, but the seed found its way to this spot, through bird-droppings.
The Palash tree also called the Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma) because of its beautiful red flowers is another leading light at the museum. We headed to our last stop, which was the crowning moment of the trail -- a Mahogany, which Vandan Jhaveri, Associate Programme officer, BNHS and our co-guide for the morning, described as the showstopper.
The famous Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, planted this tree, at K Dubhash Marg in 1865. We took a moment to soak in this historic landmark, wondering what it must have been like to be in the visionary Livingstone's shoes, what new lands did he plan to conquer when he set foot on Mumbai, 146 years ago.
Mickey is in Mumbai: The Ochna kirkii plant at the Museum gardens
is also called the Mickey-Mouse plant, a name that comes from the shape
of the fruit. The fruits of the plant are green in colour and come out of the flower.
High court' conch
In the High Court premises, stands the Shankasur (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), alternatively called the Peacock Flower or the Pride of Barbados. "The plant has beautiful flowers and when they bloom together, it looks like a conch or a shank. That's how it gets its name," explained Dr Almeda. It resembles the Gulmohar.
What to carry
* Bottled water
Books to browse
* The Trees of Mumbai by Prof Dr Maselin Almeida and late Naresh Chaturvedi
* Trees and Vegetation Survey of Veermata Jeejabai Bhosale Udyan
For those who missed this tree walk, BNHS will organise another tree walk on April 24 at the Jijamata Udyan in Byculla, called Know the Rare Trees of Jijamata Udyan
Call: 22821811/ 22871202
Total time of Heritage tree walk : 4.5 hours