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Mother of all Indian gardens

Be it the mahogany, the cinchona or the rubber plant, every tree at the Indian Botanic Garden in Shibpur, Howrah, has a tale of its own to tell

kolkata Updated: Dec 20, 2012 12:02 IST
Joydeep Thakur

Ask any Kolkatans and he would tell you that the Indian Botanic Garden at Shibpur in Howrah is a haven of peace - a green sanctuary away from the pollution and noise of the city, a paradise for picnic parties even till a few years ago.

But little did people know that the 225-year-old garden sprawling over an area of more than 270 acres and housing more than 12,000 trees has history hidden in its every nook and corner.

“Each plant in the garden has its own history and each story is more interesting than the other. People do not know that several trees, which they now see all around them, had at some point in time been cultivated in the garden and then spread to the entire country and some even to other parts of the world,” said joint director of the garden, HS Debnath.

From the very beginning, all sorts of trees yielding flowers, timber, fuel or fruits were introduced into India through the Botanic Garden and distributed throughout the country.

“Take for example the Mahogany tree. The first salaried superintendent of the garden William Roxburgh reported in 1806 that two plants of Mahogany came to the garden from West Indies way back in 1795,” he added.

Within a few years the scientists reared at least 500 trees from those two plants. These were then distributed across north India.

“By the year 1797 the authorities had built up an entire avenue (a road flanked by Mahogany trees on both sides) named Mahogany Avenue in the garden. The avenue exists till date and is a flag bearer of the garden’s rich history,” said S S Hamid, senior scientist of the Indian Botanic Garden.

Similarly the Casuarinas, which are now abundantly found along almost all seashores such as Digha, were at one point in time been first cultivated in the garden and then spread to the other parts of the country.

HT brings you some of the interesting stories and histories associated with the plants in the garden.

Cinchona: India had for many years known of the success of Cinchona barks in the treatment of malaria. But the history of this plant, when and how did this plant come to India, still remains embedded in the shady ambience of the garden.

Sources said that the first official suggestion to introduce Cinchona in India was made in March 1852. The objective was simple - to provide a home supply of the drug which was indispensable for the treatment of ‘Indian fevers’.

In 1853 six Cinchona plants were sent from London to Calcutta. The plants were doing well in the Botanic Garden but all of them died when transferred to Darjeeling. Six years later a British government officer in South America was asked to procure seeds of various Cinchona plants found in South America. Later a few plants were brought to India and taken to Ootacamund in the Nilgiris. A few plants were later forwarded to the Botanic Garden. In 1862 the garden could boast of more than 280 Cinchona plants in the garden.

Corypha Taliera: The tree was endemic to West Bengal and could be found abundantly in most areas in the Bengal region till the 18th century. But now it is extinct in the wild. Official records point out that only two specimens of the species are now found in the entire world. While one is growing in the Dhaka University, the other one could be found in the Botanic Garden in Shibpur. It is the only one in India. But how did the species become extinct?

The tree stands several feet tall and bears flowers only after it attains 60 years of age. The tree stands tall and with its enormous leaves and flowers which bloom once in several years villagers often call it the ghost tree. Soon after the Bengal Famine, which struck in the 1770s, villagers started to cut down the trees indiscriminately after a rumor spread that it was because of this tree and its flowers that the famine had occurred.

“The last record of this palm growing in the wild was in a village near Shantiniketan where it was in an early fruiting stage in 1979, but the seeds could not be saved as the villagers cut down the tree along with its 6m tall pyramidal inflorescence fearing it to be a ghost tree,” Debnath said.

The last one in India growing inside the garden was born just 15 years ago from its mother. The mother had flowered in the year 1994 and produced seeds after which she died.

Rubber tree: In India, the British planters introduced commercial cultivation of natural rubber, although the experimental efforts to grow rubber on a commercial scale in India were initiated as early as 1873 at the Botanical Gardens.

“Rubber tree initially grew in South America in countries such as Brazil. It was an offence to bring seeds of a rubber tree from Brazil. The British however employed a man who somehow managed to bring four plants. Unfortunately all the trees died within a span of few years,” said Debnath.

Later two to three sacks of seeds of rubber plants were procured and the British started experiments with rubber plants in the garden.