Saturday, March 24, 2001

Mythology comes alive in this garden
By D.S. Gupt

THE Panjab University Botanical Garden has some rare plants like ficus krishnae and ginkgo biloba, related to mythology.

Ficus krishnaeThe head of the Department of Botany, Prof S.P. Khullar, explains that ficus krishnae is named after Lord Krishna. The base of the leaf of this tree is rolled up to form donna ( leaf - cup like structure), hence the name makhan katori.

It is believed that Lord Krishna was very fond of butter and would even steal it. Once when he was caught by his mother, Yashoda, he tried to hide the butter by rolling it up in a leaf of this tree. Since then, the leaves of these trees have retained this shape. During the course of this episode, the butter melted and started flowing on to the ground. To further build an association, you have the latex (milky juice) coming out of the leaf base whenever a leaf is plucked. The leaf is also known as Krishna’s Butter Cup.


Ficus longifoliaFicus longifolia,
another tree that is a member of the peepul, borh and anjeer family, is one of the rare possessions of the botanical garden. While peepul and borh have large heart-shaped leaves, ficus longifolia has narrow leaves. Peepul also finds mention in our mythology. Lord Krishna, in one of his sermons to Arjuna, told him that amongst the trees, he identified himself with the peepul, therefore peepul was ashwatha-me. From the time Lord Krishna gave this reference, the tree is considered sacred.

Ginkgo biloba or the Chinese Silver Fruit Tree is another collection in the garden that has an interesting history. Also called ‘maiden hair,’ it is the oldest and the sole living representative of the family ginkgoaceae. Buddhist monks in China and Japan cultivate and grow it as ‘the tree of monastery’. There are separate male and female plants. These trees attain a height of about 100ft.and have a diameter of 5 ft. The seeds of this tree are mildly poisonous and may cause dermatitis. But they are used as edible items in China and Japan after are fermented, boiled or roasted. The tree existed in many parts of the world millions of years before the Jurassic Period. The tree is called ‘maiden hair’ because of its dark branches that look like the hair of a maiden. When the leaves fall down, only one green stem remains. This tree is considered sacred. The wood of this tree is light and yellow in colour and is used in China and Japan for chestboards. The seeds are eaten roasted. They aid digestion and diminish the harmful effects of alcohol.

Kauri pineThe kauri pine (agathis robusta) is a native of Australia and New Zealand. It is a close relative of pine (cheer) and cedrus (deodar). Pine and deodar (cedrus) leaves are narrow and needle-like but the leaves of agathis are broad. It is a tall, majestic evergreen tree with a massive trunk that attains the height of more than 100 ft. and a girth of 20 ft. The wood of this tree is used as timber, for it does not contain any knots. The tree was planted in the botanical garden in 1960.

Fox-tail fernLycopodium (Fox-tail fern) is a tropical plant belonging to south-east India. It has great medicinal value. In the world wars the spores of this plant were used on the wounds of soldiers to aid the healing process. In homoeopathy, this plant is used to cure urine infection and debility. These days, Professor Khullar says, the plant is wrapped around gateposts and is used to decorate marriage pandals. It is becoming rarer by the day and if not protected, it may become extinct. Adiantum peruviarum is another handsome fern in the botanical garden. The plant is from Peru and the shape of the leave resembles the outline of the map of Peru, informs Professor Khullar.

Maiden hair fernEpipremnum acereum (Tree-Bark Lover: epi stands for outer and premnum means to press)is a native of Sri Lanka. It is known by various names life Devil’s Ivy, Golden Ceylon Creeper, Golden Pothos and Hunter’s Robe. It is believed that whenever hunters went for hunting, they would use the leaves of this tree to make a robe for themselves to deceive animals. E. Pinnatum, a prolific climber, is a native of Malaya, Java, and New Guinea. It can be grown easily from stem cuttings in the months of February and March and from July to September.

Grewia optiva or biul, a plant of the lower hills, grows very fast. Its leaves are used as fodder for cattle.

Opuntia sp.Opuntia sp. Kanton wali thor is a very interesting plant. It has very long and sturdy spikes. These are very sharp and can even pierce through the hand, if one happens to hold the stem. When we visited the garden we saw the skeleton of a small sparrow entangled in the thorns of the plant. At the base of the plant was the skeleton of a snake. Perhaps delighted to find a ready meal (of the entangled bird), the snake got too close to the plant and got killed.

The botanical garden, set up in 1960, is spread over 16.3 acres. The present curator of the garden is Dr Kamaljit Singh. He is supported by Rattan Singh (senior technician), Amar Singh (head mali) and about 15 other malis. The garden has a cactii house, a fern house, lotus tank, lily tank and a mist house. In the mist house, many rare and delicate plants like primula and begonia are kept.