14 Jul 2015 16:04 IST

In the shade of living landmarks: Chennai’s tree-huggers get literal

Eco-NGO Nizhal is out with a glossary of endangered trees that need protection

In Chennai, which is relatively safe from natural disasters, very old trees are often vandalised by residents or cut down for development. In a bid to make people aware of the beauty and importance of such trees, Nizhal recently released a book which documents the Living Landmarks of Chennai .Nizhal has been working since 2005 at making the city’s urban spaces greener. “It does this not just by planting trees, but by also making residents more sensitive about standing up for the environment around them,” said trustee and founder-member Shobha Menon, who spoke to BusinessLine at the Tree Park in Chennai’s Kotturpuram area. Some time around 2006 we started what we call ‘tree walks,’ in which people were taken on nature tours and sensitised to their surroundings. Later, many people came back and expressed their disappointment at the lack of care for some of the really mature trees,” said Shobha.

Barking up

In an attempt to document the trees that grow in and around the city, Nizhal released Living Landmarks of Chennai, which puts down the various species and types of trees found in the city. The book is not an exhaustive list but only indicative of the trees that need protecting, lest they become extinct.

“The documentation took 8-9 months, though we got the idea a few years ago,” Shobha said. “The idea is to protect mature trees, trees that have stood the test of time, and make people aware of them. We put up plaques, both in Tamil and English, that explain what tree it is, what is special about it and why it must be protected,” she added.

Published by Kalamkriya Ltd, the book talks about 40 varieties of trees; those which have historical and cultural importance, indigenous trees and exotic trees that aren’t often noticed by the layman.

Authentic Ashoka

Brightly illustrated with high-resolution images, the book was launched at the Madras Book Club recently by vice-chairman of State Planning Commission Santha Sheela Nair.

“The book is not on sale in bookstores. If anyone is interested in buying a copy, they can contact us and we charge a contribution of Rs. 750, all of which goes towards signboards that are to be erected next to the trees to inform passers-by of their importance and fun facts about the trees, in general,” says Shobha.

Nizhal Trustee Dr TD Babu beamed with pride as he spoke of the success of the book, recollecting the story of a headmaster from a remote village contacting him and congratulating him on it.

Shobha and Dr Babu took us to an Ashoka tree in Nandanam which, Shobha clarifies, is an authentic Ashoka tree, like the ones mentioned in the Ramayana, and not the ‘false Ashoka’ of popular perception. The flowers of the Ashoka and the ‘false Ashoka’ or Nettilinkam, as it is called in Tamil, are one of the several ways to distinguish between the two trees, we are informed.

Endangered trees

“This tree features in the list of endangered trees of India,” Dr Babu said. “Cutting down this tree or harming it in any way can put a person behind bars. But because of lack of information, many people do not know what an Ashoka tree looks like. Take this one, for example. We had to inform people in this neighbourhood of the existence of this tree,” he added. But since then, the residents of the colony have been making an effort to make sure the Ashoka stands tall. “We got the watchman of the building near the Ashoka to collect and give us seeds from the tree for research purposes,” Shobha explained, as the watchman hands her a bag full of what look like acorns.

“Once people find out how they can help, making our surroundings greener doesn’t seem like that much of an uphill a task. Since we founded the trust in 2005, we have tied up with the government for this endeavour and even collaborated a few times. In Kotturpuram, we repopulated a barren piece of land with trees. That is the Kotturpuram Tree Park. Everything we do is volunteer-driven, from the upkeep of the park to our other awareness campaigns,” Shobha concludes.

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