Green guide

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Six categories of leaf shapes featured in the book.

The section on flowers. "Flowering is an expensive business for the tree and leaves require high hydration, so in the driest months the trees do not put out leaves."

A diversity of trees of central India.

Some of the fruits of central India.

A lavishly illustrated field guide for avid tree spotters.

THE introductory blurb to Pradip Krishen’s Jungle Trees of Central India: A F ield G uide for T ree S potters is persuasive and accurate: “Covering an area larger than France, and including five of India’s most-visited tiger reserves, the forests of central India are one of the most iconic wildscapes in the country. Jungle Trees of Central India is a lavishly illustrated and user-friendly field guide to every wild tree you will see in this entire region…. An ideal companion for your travels in the region, this book will turn you into an expert tree spotter and take your enjoyment of wild places to another level.”

Krishen’s Trees of Delhi (2006) took botanical field guides in India to an altogether new level. His latest effort took three and a half years of dedicated fieldwork. Jungle Trees has 2,000 photographs and thumbnail keys as quick references for fruits, flowers, leaves and barks. Anyone who has wandered into a forest and wondered at the vast variety of trees and the baffling similarity between many of them will enjoy this guide. The author’s delightful prose adds to the pleasure of simple identification. “Sompadal,” he says, “is only a small tree that eschews modesty in all its parts.” With a thought-provoking introduction like that it is impossible not to read on, and Krishen does not disappoint. He tells you about the nocturnal flowers that open around 10 p.m., “parting their velvety, wrinkled lips to emit a musty stink that attract bats”. The visual and olfactory imagery also explains why sompadal is commonly known as “Midnight Horror”. Titbits like these do not change the tone of the book, which is essentially that of an avid tree spotter.

Organised as an authentic field guide, the book zeroes in on the all-important feature of a tree—the leaf. The trees featured in the book have been grouped according to their leaf shapes, of which there are six categories. The next in the list of features one must look for are flowers, fruits and the bark, in that order, and the tree is identified easily. The system makes complete sense but in order to make it operational one must bone up on basic botany. The opening pages of the book with pictures of simple and compound leaves and their various subcategories take one back to schooldays. The categorisation helps to narrow down the identification.

On the page focussing on a specific tree, there is a comforting mix of scientific, academic and indigenous information. Apart from a concise approach to basic botanical information, visual aids are used. The most striking of these is a silhouette of the specimen tree with a human figure positioned next to it to indicate the size of the tree. Overall, the guide is reminiscent of Salim Ali’s iconic Birds of India, a book which Krishen says influenced him.

Krishen’s love for his subject runs deep. Academic curiosity and an almost romantic fascination with trees make for wonderful reading and, in effect, good science.

“One of the small puzzles of Nature is why spring happens,” he says. “Why do leaves fall in December and why do they put on green leaves three to four months before the rains? The monsoon exerts a tyranny… a despotic regime, over plants. Trees have to count backwards from the monsoon and decide on flowering and ripening of fruits. In central India starting late February till May you get cascading flowers on bare branches. Why do the leaves come later? Flowering is an expensive business for the tree and leaves require high hydration, so in the driest months the trees do not put out leaves. In 90 per cent of forests, the new leaf is in some shade of red. The physical reason for this is that it lacks chlorophyll. But why red? Trees delay the chlorophyll because then they will be less palatable to browsers. Still, this doesn’t explain why all the leaves are red and not just the lower ones. The current favourite explanation is that insects do not see long wavelengths in the colour spectrum, therefore, the leaves are invisible to predators when they are at their most palatable.”

The best science acknowledges mysteries and Krishen’s story of the sal ( Shorea robusta) tree is one such. The sal is a lonely tree—this is a technical term used by foresters. When the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, isolated a sal tree, it dried up and died. “It [the tree] seems to communicate with other sal… perhaps underground,” muses Krishen.

Krishen, who is on a mission to reintroduce trees into people’s lives, is distressed at the reigning aesthetics that demands evergreen foliage. “We miss out on the incredible show of trees… we need to bring the jungle back,” he says. But he also cautions against taking trees out of their context. For instance, he says, the jamun ( Syzygium cumini ), if taken out of the forest, becomes deciduous.

“Be an ecological gardener,” he urges, “only use native species… plant things that have evolved through millions of years to adapt to local regimes. About 40 to 50 trees deserve to come into cultivation but it’s not happening. Some are utterly beautiful. The anjan ( Hardwickia binata) in Delhi is now doing well because people started asking for it and so nurseries provided it. One of the sad things is that a whole phalanx of trees has disappeared.”

He recalls how during his fieldwork he wanted to photograph a babul tree ( Acacia nilotica ) in the forest but searched for so long that he began to wonder whether he “was mistaken about babul being in the forest”. When the answer struck him he “realised that babul grows in good loamy soil with water close to the surface. It’s like a flag—people immediately come and take over the babul’s land. In that sense babul is its own worst enemy. So now babul has retreated further and further which is why I found it so difficult to find in the forest.”

Is Jungle Trees effective as a tree guide? At 400 pages and weighing about two kilograms, tree enthusiasts may think twice before adding the book to their backpacks. But weight aside, what is sorely missed is a spiral binding, which would have been useful in turning the pages, especially during field trips when one is already armed with a camera, a pair of binoculars, and a notebook. But for this limitation, the book is a delight for tree enthusiasts and amateurs alike. Billed as a field guide for tree spotters, Jungle Trees is actually much more than that. It is a record of the dwindling diversity of central India’s flora. It is, as Phiroza Godrej, president of the National Society of the Friends of the Trees, said, “a splendid book… a great service to the green movement”. has 2,000 photographs and thumbnail keys as quick references for fruits, flowers, leaves and barks.

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