Trees I have
Where are the trees we grew up
with? Can we move forward without them?
By Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala
"Land Ahoy!" roars Blackbeard the Pirate as the ship tosses
violently. "Man overboard!" shouts his sidekick. They
both watch as a pirate clings grimly to the side, shaking with the
unrelenting tossing. The pirate finally falls overboard.
storm stops suddenly. My brother, aka Blackbeard the Pirate, and
my cousin, his sidekick, comfortably settle themselves among the
branches of the tree they are on, while the pirate who fell off
(another cousin) picks herself off the ground, dusts herself and
climbs back on the tree again. She and I climb higher. We all reach
out to pick ourselves guavas, lie back in the forks of branches
and munch lazily in the hot afternoon.
from the storm
The 'ship' was a guava tree in our garden. Branching almost at it
base, the tree had a peculiar shape, like a lopsided 'v': one branch
reached vertically upward, while the other main branch veered sharply,
almost parallel to the ground. The smooth branches, dense foliage
and luscious pink-centred fruits allowed us to sate our appetites
and let our imaginations run wild on hot and humid afternoons.
which my brother (now aged 51) is embarrassed to recall, was to
pretend that we were pirates standing on the deck of a ship (the
horizontal branch of the guava tree) caught in the middle of a storm
(created by my brother and cousin, who would jump up and down and
rock the supple branches). The game ended when a pirate (usually
another cousin or I) fell overboard (i.e., fell off the tree).
The guava tree
has been cultivated by humans for so long that no one knows for
certain where it originated. However, it is believed that the area
of origin is somewhere in Central America. Spanish and Portuguese
explorers took this species with them to their colonies in the east.
Because humans and animals easily dispersed its seeds, this species
easily established itself in the tropics, and became a crop plant
in Africa and Asia. It is reported that in India, guava cultivation
extends for an estimated 125,327 acres (50,720 ha), which yield
an annual crop of 27,319 tons of fruit.
In Sri Lanka,
guava trees are common in home gardens of the wet lowlands and highlands.
Guava trees are identified easily because of their light brown bark
which flakes off, leaving a smooth greenish layer underneath. Their
oval-shaped leaves have a characteristic smell when crushed. However,
it is the pink or white-centred, succulent fruits of this species
that make this tree popular.
place of refuge
Also in our garden were several Araliya trees of different coloured
blooms. One particular tree - with powerfully scented, large white
flowers - provided a safe and comfortable hiding spot whenever I
wanted to read undisturbed as a child. Its elbow-shaped branches
made for easy hand and footholds as I often hastily clambered up
to avoid doing chores for my mother. I spent many hours hidden up
there transported to Kirrin Island or to Gerald Durrell's Corfu.
To this day,
the scent of the flowers takes me back to my childhood. Plumeria
obtusia was introduced from South America. Charles Plumier, the
French botanist, named this tree after himself, while Muzio Frangipani
used the essence from flowers to make perfume. Hence, its other
derived common name, Frangipani. There are many different varieties
but their flowers are always showy, with waxy petals and most often,
are scented heavily. The timber is too soft for construction; therefore
it has no commercial value. In Sri Lanka, the flowers are used as
temple offerings and for decorative purposes, so these trees are
also called Temple Trees.
Tree, in a peculiar sigmoidal shape, served as a counter for our
kade. Nooks and crannies shaped by knots and calluses on the tree
formed perfect tills and display plates as I sold madatiya seeds,
Tridax flowers and assorted leaves to my customer (my cousin).
of mass discomfort
In a different climate at a holiday home in the hills of Diyatalawa,
I remember a splendid African Tulip Tree, Kudalu Gaha, often erroneously
called the Flame of the Forest.
- this time from Africa - its dark green leaves, spreading foliage
and fluted trunk, make it handsome enough as a tree, but it is the
scarlet inflorescences with sickle-shaped buds that make this species
a spectacular sight in the wet and mid low country.
In Sri Lanka,
this tree has no value except as ornamental, although in its native
land the wood from these trees is used to make drums. For me, as
a child, the value of the African Tulip Tree was as a very effective
weapon. During games of cops and robbers, I remember how well these
fleshy flowers became excellent water pistols as I pinched off the
top, aimed a flower at my opponent, squeezed and watched gleefully
as sap squirted out in a perfect arc.
for the hungry
Most trees bear fruit and many fruits are edible. Always far more
willing to pop something I plucked from a tree into my mouth, than
something my mother wanted to feed me, I would search keenly for
trees bearing edible fruits.
The tall tamarind
tree that stood in a relative's sprawling garden in Thellipalai
was always laden with brown, velvety, sausage-shaped pods and populated
with grey langurs, who fed on them. With its very dark brown trunk,
dull green and feathery leaves, it was instantly recognizable, because
of these pods. Split open, they yielded a very tart pulp, which,
tastes marvellous to a child.
are found commonly in the dry and intermediate zones, and the pulp
of its fruits is used as flavouring in Sri Lankan cookery. The pulp,
leaves, bark and flowers are also used for medicinal purposes. Indian
singers traditionally eat the raw pulp to improve their voices.
The tree itself is an excellent shade provider, and ecologically,
is an important food tree for frugivores such as the grey langurs.
The spreading Jam fruit tree in our garden - another tree bearing
edible fruit - provided a haven for birds and squirrels. Also called
the Jamaican or Singapore Cherry, this is another species introduced
from tropical America, which has now become widely naturalized in
tropical countries because it is a pioneer species in disturbed
areas, and grows well in urban habitats. Jam fruit trees provide
excellent shade with their dense, layered foliage.
In urban habitats,
Jam fruit trees serve an important function as they attract fruit
eating birds and small mammals. I recommend that if parents want
to inculcate a love of birds in their children, they should grow
a Jam fruit tree in their garden. As a child, however, bird watching
on the Jam fruit tree was not on my agenda. My aim was to spot and
eat the ripening, tiny, pink fruits before the birds did. My second
and more important goal was to swarm up the tree onto the roof,
which was, of course, Mount Everest.
There was just
enough of a gap between the last branch sturdy enough to bear the
weight of a ten-year-old and the edge of the roof to make the climb
adventurous with a frisson of danger. I would teeter forward off
the branch and land with a thump on the roof. My mother often complained
about faulty gutters (where my feet had wreaked havoc) and leaks
in the roof (where I cracked the tiles by landing on them). She
never stopped me, although she must have known that Sir Edmund Hillary
climbed Everest almost every day in the afternoons while she napped.
of the gods
Two mango trees in a garden much later in my life bore many more
prized fruits than the Jam fruit tree. Especially the budded varieties
of Karuththa kolomban and Ambalavi, which were carried to Colombo
with much love and care from Jaffna by Blackbeard's sidekick. Our
family watched with amazement as they grew speedily and bore fruit
when they were just six feet tall. And what fruits they were, God's
nectar packaged as succulent, orange-red fruits! At first, we could
just reach up and pluck these fruits but later, as the trees reached
their peak growth and production, we would swarm up the trunks to
pluck the fruits. My mother would carefully place them on jute bags
- ten, twenty, fifty, hundred, two hundred, three hundred - an embarrassment
of riches in the heart of Colombo.
It is said
that this species, which is indigenous to North India, has been
cultivated for over 4000 years, and not surprisingly, it is reported
that there are over 1000 varieties of mangoes. In Sri Lanka itself,
there are the Jaffna varieties, the tiny beti amba, the huge pol
amba, the fibrous kohu amba, gira amba, dampara, mi amba and puhu
this tree as sacred and use its leaves to decorate houses for religious
and festive occasions. In their heyday, our mango trees not only
gave us an annual harvest of fruits but were also beautiful ornamentals
when they were in full bloom, with their tiny, pale cream inflorescences
that looked like lacy edges at the tips of branches. Their trunks
housed many orchids and epiphytic night-blooming cacti, while many
squirrels, brown-headed barbets, purple sunbirds, flocks of babblers,
red vented bulbuls and red-backed woodpeckers ran, hopped and flew
among the branches.
As the trees
aged, sadly their magical productivity decreased: three hundred,
two hundred, one hundred, fifty, thirty, twenty, ten and then there
was just one lone fruit in a season. Each year, as the harvest decreased,
so did the trees diminish, as more and more leaves fell off, and
branch by branch dried and fell off, until only the tree trunks
were left. Five years ago, one trunk disintegrated into a pile of
flakes and dust after a bad thunderstorm, but the other still stands
tenuously, still housing a lone stag horn fern.
When I now sit on our verandah and watch the slow decay of that
single mango trunk - visible signs of my own inexorable march toward
old age - I recall with warmth the trees of my childhood. In those
halcyon days, trees allowed us to let our imaginations run wild
as we played, they gave us an endless supply of food, provided comfortable
hidey holes, taught us about the birds and animals that lived in
them, and instilled in us a lifelong love of their beauty and place
As a teenager,
I learned that trees are essential for the amelioration of the climate,
for protecting the soil, for preventing surface water run off and
for providing habitats for countless little creatures and birds
to live. When I read about the great destruction of our planet's
forests and look around to see trees being cut down at such an alarming
rate to make way for roads and buildings, I am frightened for our
future. It is said that while you read the above paragraph and this,
approximately 149 acres of rainforest were destroyed somewhere in
the world and that within the next hour approximately six species
will become extinct.
That most of
the trees of my childhood have long since been cut down for 'development'
sharpens my fears. When I travel to the midlands in Deniyaya and
see trees being cut down on roadsides at most bends of the road,
watch helplessly as truckloads of timber are taken away, when I
see hills once verdant with trees now scarred and barren, I agonize
about our future in Sri Lanka. While I was away from Sri Lanka,
I read about the floods that ravaged the south earlier this year
and left 350,000 homeless, 300 dead and hundreds missing. I wondered
if those who suffered this devastation, as well as politicians and
policy makers, realized that countless axes on countless trees,
which left hillsides exposed to the mercy of the elements, contributed
to the floods and landslides that occurred.
When I see
the children and teenagers of today, surrounded by today's technology
that provides manufactured toys of every shape and see them confined
indoors by choice or by chance, my fears quadruple. How many of
our teenagers today know what it is to swarm up a tree to escape
being caught in a game, or to search for fruit in trees because
they are hungry (and not reach for snacks in the fridge)? How many
of them use trees as props for their games instead of turning to
their game boys and computers to provide them with readymade fantasies?
How many of them can identify the trees in their gardens and on
roadsides? How many of them know of the services that trees provide
us? How many of them know that all life on earth is dependent on
How will our
children value trees without experiencing the delights that they
If our children don't value trees, how will they ensure that these
tall sentinels are conserved for their future?