The tree in front of the house

[Using the occasion of the second tree festival – Neralu – in Bangalore to write another post on trees.]

The tree shoots up at an angle, almost leaning forward into the road away from the house, before it hits a kind of landing from where it branches away further into the road. There used to be a smaller branch in the direction of the house, but that got cut during the construction. Now it only leans to the front towards the road. On the opposite side is another tree of the same kind, much taller than this one, but shaped like a Y. One straight branch shooting up to 4-5ft and then branching away in the form of a ‘Y’. The yawning gap between the two halves of the tree sees power cables from BESCOM passing through, suspiciously, making you wonder if it is indeed its natural shape – it isn’t. One half branches over the empty site opposite the house and the other leans over the road. Together, this tree and the one in front of the house form an arch over the road, laying a perennial carpet of shade on the road.


The Millettia  pinnata, also known as Pongaemia pinnata, and more commonly as Honge (ಹೊಂಗೆ) is native to India, China, Japan, Australia and other Pacific islands. It is increasingly becoming common in Bangalore as the more recent tree planting efforts have put this tree at the top of the list. Unlike trees like the Gulmohar, the branches don’t break so easily. Compared to non-native trees like Eucalyptus it is not invasive in the way it uses up ground water.

When I bought the car and realised that there wasn’t space for both the car and the bike inside the portico, I started parking the car outside the house, under the tree. The shade was definitely useful in keeping the car cool and good. But parking the car under the tree gave me an education on the tree’s life cycle and its reactions to different seasons.

The onset of Winter, around November, sees the tree lose its leaves, at least most of them. It is a daily chore to remove them from the nooks and crannies of the car. It doesn’t get to the state of trees in temperate zones which lose all their leaves, but at least 50-60% of the leaves will be gone, and the rest would be hanging around old, torn and hoping to be left off. The roads in the area are all filled up with leaves and it is a common sight to see people collecting them and burning them off. When the recent Swacch Bharat campaign caught people’s fancy, these leaves provided good photo-ops for local big shots to sweep and pose. They then set them on fire in front of my house while one enterprising Khaki short wanted to burn a discarded Thermocol piece on top of that fire, before I asked him if it might be a better idea to attempt that in front of his house rather than mine.

By around February, the trees wear a forlorn look. It is also the time when many of the pods with seeds start falling down, and again get to the nooks and crannies of the car. These seeds are used to produce seed oil and it isn’t uncommon to see women picking them up and collecting them in bags.
Bee on Pongaemia
But the best season for these trees is March when the leaves start sprouting and the trees soon sport a dense light-green canopy. Within a month white flowers start appearing all over the tree and the flowers soon attract swarms of bees. The tree literally buzzes with activity with bees all over the tree. For the car, this means thousands of flowers all over the nooks and crannies. Not something I enjoy removing, it makes more sense to cover the car when not in use. The roads, however, sport a nice thin carpet of these white flowers. And sometimes bees buzzing by them at a lower level. So it isn’t uncommon to see people walking barefoot getting stung! Over May/June the flowers go off leaving seed pods and the leaves turn a darker green which they retain till the onset of Winter.

The trunk and branches sometimes also start oozing a thick gooey resin which drops all around the tree. Sometimes, it solidifies on the tree, powders and you have a light-brown powder all around the tree. The resin doesn’t seem to be acidic or anything and is easy to clean up. This juice/resin is supposed to be antiseptic and resistant to pests. So maybe it is its reaction to attack from some pests.

The tree in front is marked with scratch marks as I put the cat on top of the ‘landing’ where she uses the tree as a scratch pole and claws away at the tree. Sometimes she climbs up to scratch at different locations. A squirrel or a reachable bird’s nest are also hunted down for food.

The best thing about having a tree in front, apart from the shade, is the birds. Prinias – Ashy and plain, purple sunbirds, great tits and Red-whiskered bulbuls are very common on the tree. So most sleepy summer afternoons also include these birds singing away to complete the picture of tranquility.

Being fast-growing, these Honge trees are increasingly being preferred in newer areas. Given their multiple uses and easy maintenance without affecting other trees, it is a good thing. More than anything, the fact that they are native is itself a major plus.

Here’s a video by zenrainman on the Honge tree and its advantages.


Speaking of trees

If you grew up in Bangalore, especially before the ’90s, you most probably grew up in the shades of trees. As Bangalore gears up to celebrate its first Tree festival, aptly named Neralu, am reminded of those under which I grew up.

There was the Sampangi tree in Chamarajpet, spreading its branches all over the front courtyard of our compound as well as the one of the neighbor, and the road in front of the house. I remember my first experience of moonlight when the power went off and we spent time outside on a full moon day, with a carpet of moonlight streaming in through the canopy laid out on the courtyard. During the day you looked up and spent hours spotting crows’ nests in the high reaches of the tree; the sparrows had holes in the walls, crafted just for them to nest in, along with the mynahs. The tree spread a vast shade in the courtyard and we could spend the whole day in Summer playing cricket. By evening, the courtyard would be littered with dead leaves and flower buds. And during the monsoons, yellow flower petals turning black at the sides would form a carpet from the door to the gate.

The backdoor of our house led to a quadrangle with a Mango tree surrounded by tiny houses occupied by other tenants. We studied for our annual exams watching tiny mangoes forming on the tree and wondering if those are what get pickled in bottles. We spent the summer holidays watching them get bigger and then ripen. Green Parakeets flew in and feasted on the mangoes. End of May would see them being plucked and taken by the owner, and the tenants would get a small share. June came and the tree went back to its normal fruitless self, as we trudged back to school.

There was also the frail Parijatha tree, standing in front of the house, in different shapes in different seasons. Drier thicker leaves which felt like sandpaper, and small white flowers which were in much demand for daily poojas. You learnt to shake the tree well to bring down the flowers every morning. At times it would stop flowering and a neighbour would come by and chop away the branches. We watched as the leaves and branches sprouted up all over again and it went back to shedding flowers to form a white carpet when shaken.

One cannot forget the ubiquitous coconut trees, 5 of them, all over the compound – tall, aloof and inaccessible. We watched people tie a rope around their trunks and climb them, with frog hops. We tried it and managed 6 to 7 feet before the lack of grip hurt us and our arms started aching, forcing us back to the ground. The courtyard also saw smaller coconuts, barely the size of table tennis balls, strewn all over the place. When really angry with the batsman, you sometimes chucked in one of these instead of the rubber balls. They were guaranteed to cause much pain to the offending party, but not as much as to get you hauled up before the parents. You also took their long leaves, stripped off the green flaps on both sides of the spine holding them together and used the thin spine to make bows and arrows.

In summer we were packed away for a week or two to the Grandparents’ house in Srinagar to play with the cousins. The garden at the back was approached with care as we often spotted snakes. We’d spend hours looking down into the garden from the window, trying to spot snakes; a particularly fruitful summer saw us spot 3 of them within a week. When accompanied by grandparents we walked down to the Badam tree, with its wide leaves, which shed its fruits all over the place. There were the light brown/green Kaayis and the dark brown, drier ripe ones. The latter were broken down patiently and the kernel inside extracted to be eaten.

The garden in the back also had a jackfruit tree with smaller, thicker leaves. Every summer it bore large fruits which were opened up for the yellow pods. Unripe ones were plucked out to be cut up and cooked as idi-chakkai. The leaves were used as cups or plates in the evenings when the usual plates had been put out for the domestic help to clean.

Right in front was the huche-kaayi tree, or the African Tulip. You clipped the red pods attached to the leaves, on the sharper side and ran after others spraying the sap onto their legs. You’d run if you saw someone come after you with one of these pods as the liquid sap gives out a disgusting, hard to wash off smell and you really wouldn’t want it on your skin. And thus, it earned the name Huche-kaayi mara.

Watching the trees still growing in my newer layout, I wonder how long they’d take to be the real behemoths under which children grow up. The shame is that with 30X40 plots becoming more prolific the focus is more on trees that don’t grow too big to enter people’s premises or grow roots that damage foundations.

This post cross-posted here.