The Book of Indian Trees. K. C. Sahni. Bombay Natural History Society. Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jaisingh Road, New Delhi 110 001. 1998. 230 pp. Price: Rs 275.

Trees are the largest, tallest and the longest living organisms that form a continuum from soil to air. Ignoring the wisdom of the tribals and the rural poor, who enjoy the blessings of trees and use them sparingly to meet their necessities, the urban societies have clear-felled trees in forests for economic assets, causing severe environmental damage and rapid extinction of biota. The Book of Indian Trees has come at an appropriate time when the immense value of trees is being realized as important renewable resources not merely for economic well-being but also for ecological security, tranquility and aesthetic living.

The author K. C. Sahni is a distinguished botanist, who has done research and has taught generations of Indian Forest Service probationers at FRI, Dehra Dun. He has botanized extensively in Eastern Himalaya, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka and Sudan and has a first hand knowledge of trees. Sahni has expended his unbound energy and expertise to bring out a delightful and beautifully illustrated book that would be helpful in recognizing the most common native and naturalized trees in the field, learn about their characteristics and interactions with animals. To shortlist 153 trees of the Indian sub-continent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka) is a herculean task. His selection includes dicotyledons, monocotyledons, gymnosperms and tree ferns. The author has achieved a blend of scientific accuracy, lucid style and an absorbing interest.

The narration on each tree gives the common English name (some have been coined by the author), the full botanical (Latin) name, its family, names in a few Indian languages, Burmese and occasionally Nepalese. Understandably the major part of the book (pp. 16–120) is devoted to individual species. Field identification marks, general description, features of the bark, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, distribution and recurring seasonal events like leaf fall, flowering and fruiting are valuable tips to the users. Like humans, trees have their own personality. Sahni leads you to discover the uniqueness of each tree. The items entered under ‘Miscellaneous’ pertain to uses, legends, folklore and ecological notes.

The technical names of plants consist of two epithets, often so bizzare as to disuade neophytes from studying plants. Yet these names are accepted by scientists the world over. For those who wish to take up natural history as a serious hobby, Sahni’s notes on etymology of botanical names are spicy. For example, the name Tamarindus indica L. (the tamarnid) is derived from the Arabic ‘Tamar hindi’, meaning the date of Hindoostan. Most people may not know that the tamarind tree was brought by the Arabs to India from Africa. The genus Dillenia was named by Linnaeus to commemorate Johann Jacob Dillenius (1648–1747), a German botanist and Professor of Botany at Oxford. Linnaeus stated ‘Dillenia has of all plants the showiest flower, Dillenius is likewise conspicuous among botanists’. Sahni has traced the interesting origins of even common names! The fruits of Dillenia indica are dispersed by wild elephants, hence the name elephant apple. ‘Chi Naar’ (Platanus orientalis) is a Persian word meaning ‘what a fire’, because the leaves turn golden yellow to flamming red in late autumn. Chinar trees were introduced to Kashmir 400 years ago by the Mughals. A tree with a circumference of 16 m was recorded at Bijbihara near Srinagar. The reviewer had the good fortune to see this living cathedral and keep a photographic record. Excoecaria agallocha is called blinding tree! The irritating milky juicean cause blindness when it drops into the eyes. Diospyros marmorata is named zebrawood on account of the prominent jet-black stripes in the finished wood.

The reviewer wishes to share some curious pieces of information provided by Sahni. He reports that the wood of only female trees of the English willow (Salix alba ssp. coerulea) introduced to Kashmir are used for manufacturing cricket bats and the male trees are rejected! Jungly Dungi (Tetrameles nudiflora) is a favourite tree for animals. Bees build their hives on the canopy and hornbills their nests. Wood-peckers hollow out the soft wood and nest in the holes arranged in a vertical line on the trunk. Amherstia nobilis is often claimed as the most beautiful tree in the world; and I entirely agree. At the entrance to the Peradeniya Botanical Garden in Sri Lanka, you can behold a magnificent grove of these spectacular trees. A particular mango tree in Chandigarh has a trunk of 9.6 m girth, a crown spread of 2250 sq.m, with an annual yield of 17 m tonnes of fruit! Tigers clean their claws on the bark of Bischofia javanica, in the sub-Himalayan tracts, causing the red, blood-like juice to ooze out. The author aptly suggests the name ‘tiger tree’ for it. The lion-tailed macaque of Kerala and Tamil Nadu spends most of its time on the canopy of Karayani tree (Cullenia exarillata) consuming its fruits.

The author has given highlights of a few representative trees, especially those not covered in the text, that occur in 11 different regions of the Indian sub-continent from Western Himalaya to Eastern Himalaya, the north-west region to the Gangetic plain, West coast, Central India, Deccan and Karnatic, Assam and Meghalaya, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Sahni recommends the reader to consult a few major books on trees listed in the bibliography.

Agnes Arber, the celebrated English botanist believed that line drawings are creations of the mind and the eye. P. Sharma has proved this dictum by the neat, life-like sketches of 70 trees. Some figures stand out for their excellence and fidelity that would aid in field identification. The reviewer is aware of the frustrating hardships in photographing entire trees in their original habitat. Dev Raj Agarwal and M. R. Almeida are to be complimented for the magnificent colour plates. The cover photograph of the flame of the forest by the noted naturalist E. P. Gee is superb. The silhouettes of 11 trees portray their characteristic canopy architecture.

The Oxford University Press was known for producing nearly error-free books in the past. Lately this reputation has not been maintained. There are several typographical and technical errors which need rectification in the next edition. ‘Peridenya’ (p. 213) should read ‘Peradeniya’; under Oleaceae, (p. 213) stamens 7 should read stamens 2 or 4. In Bombacaceae stamens are not monadelphous but occur in 5–15 bundles attached to petals; ‘National Botanic Gardens, Calcutta’ should read ‘Indian Botanic Gardens’. On p. 57 it is reported that the mere presence of neem leaves is believed to keep an area free from malaria. This is an overstatement. This pulp from the pods of tamarind is mentioned as used to season curries, chutneys and ice-creams. It is mainly used as souring agent in curries and chutneys, as a source of home remedies and for extracting tartaric acid. On p. 88 it is stated that ‘The flowers of Butea monosperma are fertilized by babblers, sunbirds and other birds’. This is to be verified. A large number of birds and insects visit the flowers and rob the nectar by making a hole in the calyx cup. Parakeets destroy the floral parts to lap up the nectar. The work done by Rajesh Tandon at Delhi University has shown that only sunbirds are true pollinators.

Some of the definitions given to terms in the glossary need rectification and simplification.

The above minor points do not reduce the merit of the painstaking, dedicated and valuable book written by Sahni for the interested lay person. A book becomes a treasure when an amateur finds it exciting, friendly and instructive and even the expert finds new information and insights. The Book of Indian Trees belongs to this category and should be a prized possession and a companion to students of natural history, forestry, botany and wild-life. The Bombay Natural History Society deserves our gratitude in supporting this publication. We should thank the Department of Science and Technology (DST), New Delhi, and Purshotamdas Thakurdas and Divaliba Charitable trust, Mumbai for providing financial support to keep the cost reasonable for those who wish to buy a personal copy. A paper back edition would be more welcome to students.

H. Y. MOHAN RAM

 

Department of Environmental Biology,

University of Delhi,

Benito Juarez Road,

New Delhi 110 021, India

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