Tree Tales from Nagarahole

An edited version of this article was published in RoundGlass Sustain in October 2020.

“We shouldn’t be concerned about trees purely for material reasons; we should also care about them because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with. Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right at our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered.” – Peter Wohlleben in his book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’

Many of us perceive trees as insentient beings. Do you wonder then like I often do, as to how trees in their stillness and quiescence, radiate life, warmth, serenity, love, abundance and vibrancy all at once in mysterious ways that no other walking, trotting, slithering, running, hopping, talking, grunting or roaring being can?

Make no mistake, there is more to these trees than playing mere props in the all-consuming tiger chase.

I spent a beguiling afternoon among the splendid trees that make up the moist and dry deciduous forests of the famed Nagarahole Tiger Reserve spread across the Mysuru and Kodagu districts.

Here is a sampling of trees that call Nagarahole home, along with their names in Kannada, the local language. There are plenty of online resources that discuss the phenology and describe the anatomical and physiological attributes of each of these tree species for anyone interested.

I hope to bring you intriguing insights into their ecological and cultural linkages instead, in their own words. Go on and make their acquaintance.

The very first in the line-up is a nearly three century-old yellow teak tree gracing the teak groves of Nagarahole by the banks of the Kabini river.

Yellow Teak (Haldina cordifolia) Arishina thega

I am a large deciduous tree and under ideal conditions, can grow to 100 feet and more.  They say I have been standing in this veritable garden of the gods for nearly 300 years.

Yellow Teak Tree (Haldina cordifolia) Photo: J M Garg CC-BY-3.0
Yellow Teak Tree (Haldina cordifolia) Photo: J M Garg CC-BY-3.0

Am I the oldest living being in the forest? Possibly.

Have I seen the Maharajas of Mysuru? Yes, on numerous occasions, and over a couple of generations as they supervised khedda operations to capture elephants in the then impenetrable forests of Kakanakote, and hosted hunting expeditions for their British guests.

I am one of the tree species whose wood is used to shape the famed lacquer toys of Channapatna. As with many trees and plants, my roots, bark and heartwood are infused with healing properties.

I host the larvae of the staff sergeant butterfly (Athyma selenophora). My yellow flowers blossom as ball-shaped inflorescences between June and September. Bees and insects pollinate my flowers.

Come see me when you visit my forest next.

Poison Nut tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) Itti mara

I derive my name from my poisonous seeds and bark. My seeds contain strychnine, a highly toxic alkaloid and a commonly used 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!

A Malabar pied hornbill feeding on the fruit of the Poison Nut Tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) Photo: Arvind Ramamurthy @arvindrthy

My flowers are greenish and shaped like funnels with a not-so-pleasant odour. Try smelling them at your own peril. I bear fruits throughout the year, large orange berries which are relished by my friend, the Malabar Pied Hornbill. A journey through the gut of this famed ‘Farmer of the Forest’, and my seeds are ready to germinate.

Poison Nut Tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) Illustration: Plants of the Coast of Coromandel by Dr. William Roxburgh

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 my seeds were employed in the distillation of country spirits, to render them more intoxicating.

I like this ingenious use of my seeds a great deal better than what Christie’s villains did with it.

Dhaman (Grewia tiliaefolia)Tadasaali hannina mara

I am a moderate to large-sized tree. My kind grow prolifically in the dry deciduous forests of Nagarahole.

My bark and fruits are known to have medicinal properties. My green-brown fruits are a delicacy for hornbills, sambar and spotted deer, while elephants devour all of me. If you inspect the dung of elephants in Nagarahole, you are sure to find generous quantities of my seeds in them.

Dhaman Tree (Grewia tiliaefolia) Photo: J M Garg CC-BY-3.0

Try my fruit sometime. Though mostly filled with seeds, you are sure to find it delicious.

My wood is hard and durable. It may interest sporting fans that among other uses, my wood is used to craft cricket stumps, golf shafts and billiards cue shafts.

I am the only tree you will find the larvae of the leaf miner moth (Bucculatrix epibathra) on.

Indian Kino (Pterocarpus marsupium) Benga

I too am a medium to large tree inhabiting the forests of Nagarahole. Every part of me is rife with healing properties.

The extracts of my heartwood have been used to treat diabetes since ancient times. Consuming water placed overnight in tumblers made of my heartwood is said to help people suffering from diabetes.  

Indian Kino (Pterocarpus marsupium) Photo: Silviculture CC BY-SA 4.0

My leaves, flowers and an oleoresin called kino gum that oozes from my bark, are considered to be of medicinal value. Look no further than my twigs for healthy and eco-friendly toothbrushes.

Indian Kino (Pterocarpus marsupium) Illustration: Plants of the Coast of Coromandel by Dr. William Roxburgh

My wood is valuable timber and my leaves are used as cattle fodder. Thanks to overexploitation of my brethren for timber, dye and medicinal extracts by your kind, I am now categorised ‘Near Threatened’ in the IUCN Red list of threatened species.

Experts posit that Bengaluru may have derived its name from ‘Benga’ my Kannada name, thanks to the prolificity of my kind during its founding days.

My flowers are fragrant and a lovely golden yellow and they appear between September and October. Come fall in love.

Crocodile Bark tree (Terminalia elliptica) Kari Matti

I am a very special tree. I store water in my craggy bark during the summer months. Tribal communities in these forests used to tap my bark to draw water during the dry season.

Crocodile Bark Tree (Terminalia elliptica) Photo: Swati Sidhu CC BY-SA 4.0

One look at me, and you will know why I am called what I am called. My tough, bristly cortex  resembles the skin of crocodiles and is resistant to fire.

I am a large tree and can grow over 100 feet. I am one of the host trees of choice for the larvae of the tussar silk moth (Antheraea paphia), which make the exquisite wild silk prized by humans.

Crocodile Bark Tree (Terminalia elliptica) Photo: Dinesh Valke from Thane CC BY-SA-2.0

The good folks of Goa have chosen me as their state tree to honour my extraordinary capacity to store water and the ecological significance of this ability.

A grand gesture, don’t you think?

Axle Wood tree (Anogeissus latifolia) Dindalu

My name should give you a hint of the use that humans put me to. Traditionally, my wood was used to shape the axles for the wheels of ox-drawn carts, and to make agricultural implements. I am a hard wooded medium-sized tree.

I am a good source of firewood and produce charcoal, hence the alias, charcoal tree. My foliage serves as fodder for cattle and buffaloes. Between June and September, I give out tiny greenish yellow flowers on dense spherical heads from my leaf stalks. They are a source of pollen for bees.

Axle Wood Tree (Anogeissus latifolia) Photo: Dinesh Valke from Thane, India CC BY-SA 2.0

My wood, bark and gum have antimicrobial, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. My bark is used to treat snakebites and scorpion stings.

I too am a host the larvae of the tussar silk moth. My leaves secrete tannin, which is in demand for use in the tanning and dyeing industries. I am shorn of all my leaves between February and May.

Quarrelsome tree or Mottled Ebony (Diospyros montana) Jagalaganti mara

Wondering if you read this right? Yes, I am called the quarrelsome tree. Local folklore goes that planting me by one’s house causes disputes and quarrels within a household!

There is also an upside to this superstition. I am not chopped down for firewood owing to the axiom that burning my wood causes feuds in the family.

Fruits of Quarrelsome Tree (Diospyros montana) Photo: Rohit N CC BY-SA 4.0

I am dioecious with separate male and female trees. The females among us bear cherry-seized yellow fruits that are poisonous. Humans use my poison to stun fish.

I grow to about 45 feet tall and have a spiny bole. My fruits, bark and roots are used in ayurveda and siddha medicine.

I am as peaceful a tree as can be, I don’t set off quarrels and don’t fancy being labelled the purported cause of squabbles among humans.

Sort your differences and please keep me out of it!

Kadamba (Mitragyna parvifolia) Kadagada mara

Every part of me is packed with healing attributes. My bark, leaves, roots and fruits possess astringent and antipyretic properties and have long been used in traditional medicine in the Indian subcontinent.  My yellow flowers grow in ball-shaped clusters. You can see them between April and June. Birds and bats alike love feasting on my fruits.

I grow to about 75 feet tall. The young of the commander butterfly (Moduza procris) and other brush-footed butterfly of the family Nymphalidae, devour my leaves before they pupate.

Kadama (Mitragyna parvifolia) Photo: Dinesh Valke CC BY-SA 2.0

Of the four species of Kadamba, I am the only one that grows naturally in the wild and I am the original Krishna Kadamba.

Mythology has it that I was Lord Krishna’s favourite tree, and it was beneath my spreading canopy that he cavorted with the gopikas in Brindavana. If I could speak your language, I would regale you with many a scintillating story.

Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) Beete mara

I grow to around 65 feet tall and there are several of us in these forests. I bear fragrant white flowers pollinated by bees, beetles and butterflies.

I am a leguminous tree. Rhizobium bacteria in my root nodules help fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil and enhance soil fertility.

Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) Photo: Dinesh Valke CC BY-SA 2.0

Medicinal attributes aside, I am better known for my hard, heavy and rich hued dark wood. My timber is considered premium and is much sought after for furniture and high-end woodwork.

Thanks to overuse for my timber, I am notified ‘Vulnerable’ in the IUCN Red List. The Indian Forest Act prohibits the export of my wood.

Misteltoe (Loranthus Sp.) Banduka

I am a woody hemiparasite and derive my nutrients and water from the host tree. Unlike holoparasites, I can photosynthesize and derive at least some of my organic nutrients on my own. This author found me growing on the rosewood tree you heard from above.

Mistletoe (Loranthus) Photo: Suniltg at ml.wikipedia CC-BY-3.0

I am considered an invasive species in these regions by humans. Speak of the pot calling the kettle black!

My leaves are food for the larvae of the common jezebel butterfly (Delias eucharis). My flowers are quite a draw for nectar feeding birds such as the purple-rumped sunbird, the purple sunbird, spider hunter and Tickell’s flower pecker.

I am the last in this list. There are many more fascinating trees we share this forest with. Stop by when you are here next and Nagarahole will never disappoint.