Trees of Delhi
"I think I shall
As urban environmental degradation issues take centre place, the comprehensive user-friendly field guide Trees of Delhi fills a long-standing vacuum. Earlier attempts on the subject include a 1968 publication by the School of Planning and Architecture; which though useful, was woefully inadequate. Other ‘Garden Cities’ like Bangalore and Chandigarh too have inspired books such as Blossoms of Bangalore and Trees of Chandigarh documenting their tree wealth. However, a handy field guide – which a nature-lover could carry along with his field glasses and a notebook on a leisurely Sunday morning for a walk in its forests, gardens or along avenues was certainly missing. And Delhi has such a rich presence of trees, dating from its Mughal past to British Raj and to the post-Independence planting.
The book is structured into three components: Introduction, Tree spotting and Back of the Book. The curtain raiser to the Introduction is a warm, personal account of the writer’s beginning of his love affair with the trees of Delhi; a great natural wealth hitherto unnoticed by him. "It was late winter in 1995—16 February to be precise ... It is a time of year when most shrubs and trees on the Ridge have been bare for many weeks. On this particular day, I noticed that every dry twig had sprouted a tiny, pale green affirmation that it was still alive—little glinting points of life, especially noticeable when a bush was backlit by the sun ... I felt specially privileged, as though the forest had allowed me in on a secret event on its biological calendar," writes Pradip Krishen in a seduction for other tree lovers.
The book gives basic information about trees and tips on how to use the field guide. Then Krishen unveils his masterstroke: The leaf scheme—an identification-made-easy kit for distinguishing the confusing array of trees from one another, especially between similar looking ones. This classification of a tree by the distinct shape and type of its leaf holds the key to its identification. While this approach works well for a field guide; where the foremost objective is correct identification – different experts have developed other approaches also, from the parameters of form and size; as these two attributes of a tree make the first major impact on the eye. They also indicate the suitability for its plantation along an avenue or a civic space in relation to its scale. Then follow other criteria like its deciduous/evergreen foliage, flowers, bark and leaves. In fact, Le Corbusier, architect-planner of Chandigarh, in his efforts to develop a planned tree planting scheme for the city, classified trees into six broad shapes and then created a model for their urban plantation along various roads and public spaces keeping in mind their need for sun, shade and maintenance aspects of leaf fall etc.
A very valuable contribution of the book is in highlighting the natural ecology and tree habitats of Delhi – which ought to have been the major criteria for urban plantation in the city. But one has no quarrel with incorporating exotic species, too, that adapt well to the local conditions as this enriches aesthetic delight and provides for greater plant diversity. A very fine differentiation is made in the book between rain forests and monsoon forests, which constitute the major forest wealth of the hot and dusty northern plains. A peculiar phenomenon that happens in these areas — noticed both in Delhi and Chandigarh and surely other cities in the climatic belt—is the profuse leaf-shedding by trees like pilkhan, kusum, peepal and bahera in March-April and then donning of new tender copper, russet and brownish leaves before turning into various hues of greens. This baffling ‘autumn in spring’ behaviour is mainly due to drought conditions that prevail before the monsoons – but what brings on the new leaves is not very clear. Perhaps some enlightened reader or expert will unravel this mystery!
As the focus of the book shifts to the history of tree plantation in New Delhi or rather Lutyen’s Delhi, the methodical and persevering approach by the British town planners is laudable, given the semi-arid climate and rugged soil conditions. Captain George Swinton, Chairman of the Town planning Committee for the new capital, in his report short listed only 13 types of trees suitable for avenue plantation for shade and vistas; ignoring totally the trees grown by the Mughals in their gardens. The chosen ones were mainly: jamun, neem, arjun, tamarind, sausage trees, mahua, river red gum etc. The book misses due credit to Lutyen’s associate William Robertson Mustoe, a horticulturist, who did enormous work on tree plantation.
It’s interesting to note that many years later the planners of Chandigarh – especially Dr M. S. Randhawa disliked New Delhi trees for their dark and gloomy effect and instead enthusiastically promoted flowering species for radiant, bright and colourful avenues. The fragility of these exotic species has now resulted again in a paradigm shift towards planting more of hardy, native species. Perhaps, what’s required is a balanced approach for urban tree plantation depending on environmental, functional and aesthetic parameters.
The Tree Guide is a huge documentation of 252 species with extensive information about the most common tree species: their native range, natural habitat, uses and illustrated with over 1100 photographs showing details of bark, leaves, flowers and fruit. It also includes an index to both local and scientific names and tips on some of the best places to see trees in Delhi. The last section: Back of the Book contains interesting anecdotal as well as factual information on trees and also removes some common misconceptions about them, such as about correct botanical name of the Christmas tree.
Though one realises the space constraints of a field guide, one misses pictures capturing the full form of tree species. It is first of all the visual splendour of trees that evokes a lay person’s interest in them and curiosity to know more — and that too when the author himself is a photographer of repute! Even the book cover doesn’t show the glory of a tree and instead has a bland mosaic of leafs, petals, flowers and fruit. Also one realises the limitation of following the leaf scheme for classification, as with this order a beautiful flowering tree like jarul is placed in one sub-section of the book; and another one like silver oak ends up being located elsewhere, because of their leaf differences.
On the whole the book is an excellent, long-awaited gift for tree lovers for its painstaking research, accuracy, the richness of details – and above all a heart-warming, personal, writing style that combines the author’s passion for trees with the gaze of an uncompromising scientist. Pradip Krishen’s magnificent obsession is a God-gifted poem on trees. Joyce Kilmer would agree.