Exploring Qutb complex is like un-layering the very root of the city of Delhi. When exactly the city began here, no one is quite sure. Some say its antiquity dates back to the times of the Mahabharata as Indraprastha—its legendary capital. When the Turks, led by Muhammad Ghori, descended here in 1192 to establish the seat of Delhi Sultanat, an exotic architecture style sprung up with the amalgamation of the creative prowess of local Hindu artisans and the Turkish newcomers. Among the strange architectural features carved out in stone, the repetitive symbolism of vines and creeper plants, flowers encased inside chakras, lotus bud fringes etc. creates imagery which represents nature. Today therefore, is it not unusual to spot some of the rare and exotic plants surrounding the ancient world heritage monument, as if cocooning it in the greenery of nature.
As we enter the scalloped gateways at the entrance of the monument, we follow a circular path around it, spotting old friends who have been standing here for a long time. We start along the path curving leftwards towards the entrance of Quwaat-ul-Islam mosque, saying hello to the Fiddle Leaf Fig on the left and the one-and-only Badhara Bush on the right, taking our path by the neem tree through the colonnaded corridor and exiting the Alai Darwaza. We explore the trees in the eastern sector of the compound and cross over to the western side, passing by the un-missable Australian ‘Reid River Box’. We walk behind the madrasa, meeting the Bilangada and Pilkhan standing as brave sentinels personifying some unknown characters from the layers of history buried here, before coming out to see the half-finished Alai Minar of grandiose design, silhouetted by the equally strange tree called Kanju which is considered home to ghosts and spirits. There cannot be a better place for this tree than in Mehrauli perhaps, where we fail to discover the details of the gory stories of grave after unknown grave, no matter how hard we try. As we exit the monument complex by the same scalloped gates, we see a row of palms with their arched leaves swaying in the wind, as if trying to say good-bye!
Fiddle Leaf Fig – The African Beauty (Ficus lyrata)
An exotic import from West Africa, it is marked by its large violin or fiddle shaped glossy leaves with prominent white veins on its underside. Its figs grow in pairs and are stalk-less.
Badhara Bush – Thicket of Thorns (Gmelina asiatica)
The large, spiny shrub-like tree is the only one in the whole of Delhi, and is native to SE coastal areas. The thorny bush is characterized by the shape of its leaves which change to a three-lobed shape. Its flowers grow in long bunches of canary yellow, often giving its name as Nag Phul.
Ashok – The Cemetery Tree (Polyathia longifolia)
Native to the moist forests of Sri Lanka but very commonly planted in Delhi, it remains evergreen throughout the year. Around fourteen varieties of Ashok are found in India alone. It is often planted as a sound barrier, but its intricate root system sucks the water from far below, thereby lowering the water table. For this reason, its widespread use in a place like Delhi is now being contested. It is identified by its long, narrow leaves which have wavy margins and due to their distinctive shape, its leaves are used in marriage celebrations for decorating gateways. The startlingly white wood inside its trunk is used for making pencils and even drums. A single flower produces a cluster of eight to twenty fruits from one common stalk.
Khabar (N) – Lively canopy on an Ancient Trunk (Salvadora oleoides)
Found exclusively in Mehrauli, this twisted bush-like tree that is also called ‘bada pilu’ has smooth green olive-like leaves with absolutely no elasticity and breaks with a thud. Its lifeless and old-looking trunk is in sharp contrast to its evergreen foliage.
Ber (N) – The Poor Man’s Fruit Tree (Ziziphus mauritiana)
Also called a desert apple tree, ber has been widely cultivated in India for its fleshy olive-like fruits. Its leaves are oval in shape and a beautiful dark green in colour. The bark seems as though it’s peeling off the tree trunk, and the jewel-like fruits are visible from outside the canopy but not from the inside. Its leaves are curled inwards as if to cover the fruits.
Dhak (N) – Upholding The Spirit of Friendship (Butea monosperma)
Known by many names such as tesu, palash, and ‘flame of the forest’, it can grow in almost any inhospitable terrain—be it frost, heat, water-logged poor soil or drought. It is also known as a pioneer tree as it is the first to regenerate in a forest clearing. Due to such qualities, it is used to colonize grounds by growing forests. Its velvety leather compound leaves of three leaflets is often cited in the proverb ‘dhak ke tin patte’, meaning ‘birds of the same feather flock together’. It is also called ‘parrot tree’ as its fiery orange flowers are shaped like a parrot’s beak. It is used to rear lac insects to produce shellac which is secreted by the female lac. Making jewellery such as bangles from shellac is quite popular in India. The orange flowers are used to make a dye used in the Holi festival, while dry flowers are often soaked in water in villages for new mothers to bath due to their disinfectant properties. Its inner bark is used to make ropes, while a rural eco-industry has sprung up to make plates by stitching together its broad leaves.
Ronjh (N) – The Acacia with a ‘Sick-Skin’ (Acacia leucophloea)
Known as white-barked acacia, it is distinguished by its cream-coloured bark with black patches like the skin of a diseased person. Its small leaflets close at night to conserve moisture. Its heart-wood or the non-living older wood-core is used to make beams and rural furniture.
Jand (N) – The Golden Tree of Deserts (Prosopis cineraria)
Deeply revered in deserts, this thorny tree is marked by an extremely fissured bark. Although it does not require much watering, its long roots extend up to ninety feet to search out water from great depths, thereby impacting the already low water table in arid areas. Its drooping branches are often seen with fruit-like growths called ‘galls’, which are not fruits but are in fact produced by insect infestation. During the 1868 Great Rajputana Famine, its sweetish bark mixed with flour saved a lot of lives.
Kareel (N) –The Leafless Tree (Capparis decidua)
This amazingly hardy plant is not found anywhere else in Delhi. It has a trunk like a crocodile’s skin, and a dense foliage of leafless green twigs. Small leaves remain for only a month, requiring the twigs to take over photo-synthesis which is why they are green in colour. Webs can be seen in this large bush-like deciduous tree, highlighted by brick-red flowers. Its leaves and tender shoots are powdered to treat boils, while its fruit is used to treat cardiac diseases.
Bistendu (N) –The Tree that Stupefies (Diospyros cordifolia)
The smallish deciduous tree has a spreading canopy of rich foliage whose leaves are velvety with a slightly heart-shaped base tapering to a thin point. Adivasis often mix its fruit pulp in water to stupefy fish.
Peelu (N) – The Toothbrush Tree (Salvadora persica)
A typical desert tree found from Arabia to Baluchistan to Patna, it has dark foliage with drooping branches and somewhat fleshy leaves. It is known as the mustard tree and is mentioned in the Holy Bible. Three trees are considered for the use of their twigs in brushing teeth: meswak, neem and babul. Peelu is the meswak tree and is often called the toothbrush tree. Such a use is believed to have been in practice since ancient Islamic times. Its leaves are considered to be an antidote to poisons.
Reid River Box – Landmark of Another Kind (Eucalyptus brownii)
A very rare tree from Australia and the only one in Delhi, Reid River Box is included in the landmark group of trees. It belongs to a box group of eucalyptus—an evergreen medium-sized tree with a flaky or fissured trunk. In early March, the flower callypts or ‘caps’ fall off and the white stamens pop out.
Chamrod (N) – The Musical Tree (Ethretia laevis)
Chamrod or the ‘desi papdi’ is a native tree with a knobbly pale-coloured trunk. It is known as the musical tree because bees, butterflies and migratory birds descend upon it in large numbers to eat its bright-orange berries which hang in clusters. White star-shaped flowers cover its canopy of oval-shaped green leaves.
Bilangada (N) – The Native Beauty (Flacourtia indica)
A smallish, native bush-like deciduous thorny plant, it has short, straight spines bearing flowers and leaves. The flowers have no petals, and the leaves have blunt tooth edges.
Pilkhan (N) – The Mufflered Tree (Ficus virens)
A common strangler tree, its aerial roots wrap around trunks like a muffler. It is used as a common avenue tree as its spreading canopy makes an excellent windbreak.
Kanju (N) – The Ghost Tree (Holoptelea integrifolia)
This is the tallest tree native to Delhi and is called the Indian elm, chilbil, and chudail papdi because dark spirits are said to reside in it. At night, a typical whooshing sound emanates due to the activity of bats, giving it further reason to be considered a place of paranormal activities. Its fruits are round papery disks, brown in colour when mature.
Wild Date Palm (N) – The toddy tree (Phoenix sylverstris)
A tree commonly found in lithographs of Old Delhi, the wild date palm with a stepped bark and curled trunk is related to the true palm of North African oases. Its roots are exposed almost a foot above the ground, and its leaves are used to make floor-mats and brooms, while the sugary sap collected from beneath its arching leaves is boiled to make palm jaggery (gud). Un-boiled juice is left to ferment to make toddy.
The walk to observe these exotic and unique trees was led by the amazingly knowledgeable environmentalist Kavita Prakash of ‘Sausage Tree Nature Walks.’ The walk was part of ‘Delhi Walk Festival’ organised by ‘Delhi, I Love You’ and curated by ‘Delhi Dallying.’
1. Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, by Pradip Krishen, 2006, New Delhi
2. Landmark Trees of India: http://www.outreachecology.com/landmark