The most pain-free way to sacrifice something’s future is to dwell unduly on its past glories. On the face of it, it may be the most flattering thing to do; but it stunts the growth of the lionised subject. That is probably what we are doing to the ravishingly-beautiful “butea monosperma”, parasu in Tamil. The narrative about the tree in Chennai is usually centred around how the species once proliferated in certain parts of the city with one locality, Purasaiwalkam, even deriving its name from it.
It is a past-heavy narrative that seems to subtly suggest that the past is all that the species has. However, the species has a future that is as bright as its flowers, which are an intoxicating mix of orange and red, with a slight trace of yellow.
“There are efforts to promote the tree, but they are not adequate. The Forest Department has raised butea monosperma trees in the Vandalur zoo. There is a voluntary group from Puducherry that is promoting the species. There are individuals who are taking the initiative to plant parasu saplings. But clearly, many more initiatives are required,” says D. Narasimhan, member of the Tamil Nadu biodiversity board.
In its tree-planting guidelines, the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) has listed butea monosperma as an avenue tree that is best suited for large roads (more than 12 metres wide).
A Corporation official attached to the parks department of GCC says so far there has not been any major exercise to introduce these trees on city roads, but soon efforts in this direction will be made as part of the larger initiative of promoting native species.
An official of the Tamil Nadu Road Development Company (TNRDC) says that butea monosperma will make an arresting avenue tree, and is easy to raise. On the scope for having it planted along two major roads maintained by TNRDC, he says, “It can be planted on Old Mahabalipuram Road. With its spectacular flowers, the trees will make for a pretty picture on this road. Considering the parasu tree has soft wood and is prone to easy breaking in gusty conditions, it may not be a great idea to have them on East Coast Road. Within a month, we will have a plan for planting parasu saplings on Old Mahabalipuram Road.”
Beauty aside, butea monosperma trees strongly recommend themselves for their utility factor. They can be an ally in our sustainability battles. The broad and long leaves of the tree have traditionally been used in the making of plates.
“It can be an extremely valuable livelihood tree. Apart from its leaves that can be used for making plates, its flowers are useful in dye-making. From a biodiversity point of view, the parasu tree is a host tree for the ‘lac’ insect,” says Narasimhan.
The concept of promoting livelihood trees is about ensuring easy access to resourceful trees for people who may benefit from them, and also placing in their hands the knowledge required to make use of the resources, in a manner that is sustainable and protects these trees.
To start with, there should be more narratives about the parasu, and they should be janus-faced, taking in the past glories of the species on Madras soil, and at the same time exploring the possibilities for the species in Chennai’s future.
There is one narrative that has to be shared. Butea monosperma is a resilient tree, and volunteers at the Kotturpuram Tree Park would vouch for that. Shobha Menon, founder-trustee of the NGO, Nizhal, recently shared with this writer an account of how a parasu tree at the Kotturpuram Tree Park successfully fought back after being hit in the 2016 Vardah cyclone. A prop provided to the tree at the time that it needed it, is still kept there as a reminder of how the parasu won the battle against a natural calamity.
It is also a reminder to us that we should help the tree species win a larger battle.
(Natural Allies is a section that draws attention to the natural resources in the city that can be an ally in our sustainability battles)