Do you wonder, like I often do, how trees in their stillness and quiescence, radiate life, warmth, serenity, abundance and vibrancy all at once, in mysterious ways that no other walking, trotting, slithering, hopping, talking, grunting or roaring being can? In December 2019, I spent a beguiling afternoon in the moist and dry deciduous forests of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, acquainting myself with its trees. There are plenty of resources that discuss the phenology and describe the anatomical and physiological attributes of trees but read on, for a fascinating glimpse into their ecological and cultural linkages instead.
Yellow teak (Haldina cordifolia) Arishina thega
Yellow teaks are large deciduous trees that can grow 100 feet tall and more. A nearly 300-year-old yellow teak tree graces the banks of the Kabini just before the Maasthi Gudi boating point, near a teak grove. This grand old tree has possibly seen two generations of Mysuru Kings as they supervised khedda operations to capture wild elephants in the then impenetrable forests of Kakanakote.
The wood of the yellow teak is pliable, without grains, and is one of the trees used to shape the famed Channapatna lacquer toys. The root, bark, and heartwood of the yellow teak are infused with healing properties.
The tree hosts the larvae of the staff sergeant butterfly (Athyma selenophora). Yellow flowers blossom as ball-shaped inflorescences between June and September and are pollinated by bees and insects.
Poison nut tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) Itti mara
This tree derives its name from its poisonous seeds and bark. The seeds contain strychnine, a highly toxic alkaloid used commonly as a rodenticide in the 19th century. Strychnine also finds prominent mention in Agatha Christie’s mystery tomes as a preferred choice of poison for diabolical murders.
The tree’s flowers are greenish and shaped like funnels with a not-so-pleasant odour. Try smelling them at your own peril. The tree bears fruits throughout the year — large orange berries relished by the Malabar pied hornbill. After a journey through the gut of this famed “farmer of the forest”, the seeds are ready to germinate.
Dr. William Roxburgh (1751-1815), a doctor and botanist in the service of the British East India Company, also considered the founding father of Indian botany, notes in his book Plants of the Coast of Coromandel that the seeds of this tree were employed in the distillation of intoxicating country spirits. Perhaps locals made better use of the seeds than Christie’s villains did!
Dhaman (Grewia tiliaefolia) Tadasaali hannina mara
The dhaman is a moderate-to-large sized tree species that grows prolifically in the forests of Nagarhole. The bark and fruits are known to have medicinal properties. The green-brown fruits are considered a delicacy by hornbills, sambar, and spotted deer, while elephants can and do devour most of the tree. If you inspect the dung of elephants in Nagarhole, you are sure to find generous quantities of dhaman seeds in them.
It may interest sporting fans that the tree’s hard, durable wood is used to craft cricket stumps, golf shafts, and billiards cue shafts.
Dhaman is the only tree that hosts the larvae of the leaf miner moth (Bucculatrix epibathra).
Indian kino (Pterocarpus marsupium) Benga
The Indian kino is a medium-to-large tree from the forests of Nagarhole. Every part of this tree is rife with healing properties. The extracts of the heartwood have been used to treat diabetes since ancient times. Its leaves, flowers, and an oleoresin called kino gum that oozes from the bark, are of medicinal value. The twigs can serve as healthy and eco-friendly toothbrushes. Fragrant, golden yellow blossoms appear between September and October. The wood of Indian kino is considered valuable timber and the leaves are used as cattle fodder. Due to its overexploitation for timber, dye and medicinal extracts, the tree is now categorised as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
Some experts have posited that Bengaluru city may have derived its name from “benga” the tree’s Kannada name, owing to its prolificity during the city’s founding days.
Crocodile bark tree (Terminalia elliptica) Kari matti
This special tree stores water in its craggy bark during the summer months. Tribal communities in these forests used to once tap the bark to draw water during the dry season. The tough, bristly bark resembles the skin of a crocodile and is resistant to fire. The large tree can grow over 100 feet tall. Crocodile bark trees are among the host trees of choice for the larvae of the tussar silk moth (Antheraea paphia). The moth’s cocoons yield the exquisite tussar silk prized for its raw texture.
Goa honours this extraordinary tree as its state tree.
Axle Wood tree (Anogeissus latifolia) Dindalu
This medium-sized hardwood tree was traditionally used to shape axles for the wheels of oxcarts and to make agricultural implements. The wood is also used as fuel and charcoal, hence the alias, charcoal tree. The foliage serves as fodder for cattle. Between June and September, tiny greenish-yellow flowers on dense spherical heads appear on leaf stalks and are a source of pollen for bees. The wood, bark, and gum have antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Bark extracts are used to treat snakebites and scorpion stings. This tree also hosts the larvae of the tussar silk moth. The leaves secrete tannin, which is in demand in the tanning and dyeing industries. Between February and May the tree loses all its leaves.
Quarrelsome tree or mottled Ebony (Diospyros montana) Jagalaganti mara
Wondering if you read this right? Yes, this tree is called the quarrelsome tree. According to local folklore, planting it near one’s home can cause disputes and quarrels within a household. There is also an upside to this superstition. The tree is never chopped for firewood because of the belief that burning its wood can trigger family feuds.
The tree is dioecious. Dioecious species have separate male and female trees. The females bear poisonous cherry-sized yellow fruits. The poison is used to stun fish. The tree grows to about 45 feet and has a spiny bole (trunk). The fruits, bark, and roots are used in ayurveda and siddha medicine.
Kadamba (Mitragyna parvifolia) Kadagada mara
Every part of the kadamba is packed with healing attributes. The bark, leaves, roots, and fruits possess astringent and antipyretic properties and have long been used in traditional medicine on the Indian subcontinent. Yellow flowers blossom in ball-shaped clusters between April and June. Birds and bats alike feast on the fruits. The tree grows to about 75 feet. The young of the commander butterflies (Moduza procris) and other brush-footed butterflies of the Nymphalidae family devour the leaves before they pupate.
Of the four species of kadamba, Mitragyna parvifolia is the only one that grows naturally in the wild. It is considered the original “Krishna Kadamba”, which according to mythology was Lord Krishna’s favourite, and it was under its spreading canopy that he is believed to have cavorted with the gopis of Brindavan.
There are many more fascinating trees in the forests of Nagarhole. Seek them out when you visit next, and you will not be disappointed.