I have admitted numerous times that I do not have a scientific knowledge of plants. Whatever I have learnt is largely through experimentation. I used to sow seeds randomly. Most of them never germinated. Before I took afforestation seriously, my belief was that as soon as seeds were sown they would sprout. It was much later that I realized each seed undergoes a process before it germinates. How does that happen in forests? The process takes place when birds and animals eat the fruits and expel the seeds, either through spitting or through excreting them. Tough seeds that are spat by bats are found to germinate. But I don’t know anything deeper than this.
Right now, I am at the Seed Centre that is part of the Forest Research Centre at Peechi. Here you can see plenty of saplings. You can come here and buy as many as you want. You will see a good team here engaged in the sowing activity with great passion and interest. Their chief is Mr Rajan. Let us find out what he has to say on the subject. You will get information about how to grow saplings, and also learn about the sheer number of plants that grow here. You can buy and plant them in your own plots. Most of them have medicinal value. Even if you own only a five-cent plot you can purchase a lot of saplings and plant them, and they will give you a lot of benefits.
With his long years of experience, Mr Rajan has gained a lot of expertise in the subject of seed germination. We will profit from the knowledge he has acquired, and also from the information about the seeds and saplings available here. There are a few peculiarities about the plants and other medicinal plants sprouting in the forest. Let us learn more about it from him. How many species do you have here?
Nearly 270 in this nursery.
Species, you mean?
But they keep changing, don’t they?
Yes. New species come in, the old ones get over. The pattern goes on.
Are your clients largely individuals?
Yes. But we also give away plants in connection with certain projects conducted by the government.
There is a process to follow in order to make seeds sprout, isn’t there? I saw a chamber where seeds of flame-of-the-forest were being treated. Don’t the seeds undergo a similar process when creatures eat them? For the seeds to germinate otherwise, they have to be given some kind of acid treatment, isn’t it? Could you elaborate on that? Give a few examples?
The seed of the yellow vine, for instance, is given a GA3 treatment. That is, it is dipped in Gibberellic acid (GA3) for 24 hours. The concentration is maintained at 2,000-3,000 ppm [parts per million]. Thereafter, the chances of germination increases by up to 80 %. The seed doesn’t sprout if it is simply left on the ground.
Similarly, the golden shower tree . . .
Its seed is put in boiled water, and then in cold water for 24 hours, before being sowed. This helps speed up germination.
Flame-of-the-forest too is treated the same way, isn’t it?
That will germinate if we put it in cold water. No special treatment is required. Dipping in water is all that is required. But we dip the seeds of the sandalwood tree in dung water for 12 hours. It increases the chances of germination by 70 to 80 %.
There is a mountain sweet thorn tree in my plot. It is full of thorns. I saw its saplings here . . .
It is one of the star trees, and is said to be the tree of those who are born under Vishakham star.
I wish I knew that earlier. My mother’s star was Vishakham.
It is generally grown in temple precincts too. But if its fruit becomes too ripe, the seed will not germinate.
It grows thorns on becoming mature, doesn’t it?
Yes. The mountain sweet thorn is similar to the Indian coffee plum tree. Both belong to the Flacourtia family. The mountain sweet thorn is Flacourtia montana. The leaves of the two trees are remarkably similar. But the Indian coffee plum tree does not grow thorns.
The thorns of the mountain sweet thorn tree are fairly vicious.
What about the cannonball tree that we see in temple premises?
Its ripe seed is very big. But if it is not ripe, it won’t sprout. After the seed becomes ripe, it has to be cleaned of its pulp, dried under the shade, and sown. It will germinate without any further process but it takes 10 to 20 days for the sprouts to appear.
The humidity and temperature in this mist chamber is regulated automatically. The temperature is maintained at 31 degrees and humidity at 62 g/m 3 . We grow evergreen saplings here. Water comes through this and when the two fans rotate, cold air blows out. So we maintain an evergreen feel here all the time.
That’s how you create the evergreen forest ambience, isn’t it?
Yes. That is maintained to grow plants like white cedar, yellow vine, Gopher tree [Bodocorpus negiana] and so on.
What is this?
Yellow vine. It is a climber. The fruit is used in as many as 40 different Ayurvedic medicines. It is used to cure jaundice. The seeds are collected from the forest. When we conducted a survey in the forest, we observed only 200 plants. It is under threat of extinction because the plants are being cut indiscriminately by people for making medicines. So we are planting them again inside forests. We are sowing the seeds in the seed bed here. This is how the new sprouts come. They will be bright yellow in colour. They are sown in vermiculite so that the roots can run well, there is good aeration, and there is no problem for the sprout to appear. Vermiculite is a medium used exclusively for the germination of seeds.
Without this medium, how does yellow vine germinate in the forest?
It is difficult for yellow vine to germinate in the normal course of things. That happens only occasionally when it passes through the mouths of animals and falls on the ground. Otherwise it does not happen.
Isn’t this Spicate eugenia?
Yes. It is also called Syzygium zeylanicum. This is mahua. Also known as Madhuca indica. However this is different from the mahua that is considered a star tree. That one is Madhuca latifolia.
Are they seen on the banks of streams?
No. This is Madhuca indica.
This is white cedar, an evergreen tree. Dysolxylum malabaricum.
This one comes under the Bodocorpus family. Bodocorpus negiana. It is called the Gopher tree, whose wood is said to have been used to make Noah’s ark. As the oil content of the tree is higher, the wood doesn’t rot easily. This evergreen tree does not grow well in very hot places. This is mootapalam. The seeds have only just begun to sprout.
May I clear a doubt with you? Doesn’t mootapalam have male and female trees?
Yes but that becomes evident only after the tree grows and matures. If it bears fruit, it is female. If it doesn’t it is male. This is the sapling of wild jack. This is white dammar. Vateria indica.
Does the frankincense tree come under the same family?
Yes, the white dammar. That is jaggery palm. There is no need to keep it here but its rhizome is very sweet. As a result, rats damage it.
Is this cobra’s saffron tree?
No. This belongs to the Dimocarpus family. Dimocarpus longan or dragon’s eye. The wood is very hard. It is a medium tree.
What is that among the cobra’s saffron?
We do have cobra’s saffron tree. But that is another one.
This is the seedling of the neem tree. The seeds have been sown. The peculiarity is that when we sow it in vermiculite, we get the roots without any damage. We can bag each and every sapling, without losing a single one.
May I raise a doubt? Generally, don’t the seeds of neem tree fall on the ground and germinate there?
The peculiarity of neem is that the seeds will sprout within 10 to 15 days. If it doesn’t get the right conditions within that period, the seed won’t sprout at all.
This is slow match tree. This is wild nutmeg. Also known as Knema attenuata. It is a small tree, and has been bagged only now. This is flame-of-the-forest.
How is this different from the other one? Is the stem of this one slim?
No, this is the regular flame-of-the-forest. Butea monosperma.
This is black plum. Syzgium cumini.
This is lipstick tree. Bixa Orellana.
Does it have a medicinal use?
No. Its fruits come in bunches. This is spinous kino tree. White bauhinia. Siris tree. This is garari. All these are garari. The fruits and leaves are poisonous. Usually, its leaves are spread over a freshly-tilled land to get rid of parasites. That is the use of garari. This is South India soap nut tree. Sapindus trifoliatus. Its seed is used to wash clothes, and also clean gold and silver ornaments. This is Indian laurel.
Is this also an evergreen tree?
No, it is deciduous.
This is a climber, and is used as medicine. Its tuber is used to bring down body heat. Is it used to make pickles?
Yes. A lot of medicines too are made from it. This comes in two varieties. One has white flowers, and the other has red.
I see plenty of them in my plot.
This is Malabar ironwood. Its seeds sprout even while they remain on the tree.
This is Cyanthocalyx zeylanica, an evergreen tree. Its leaves have become like this because of excessive heat.
So, it doesn’t need much heat?
Yes. It is an evergreen tree. The canopy looks like an umbrella. That is why it is called kudavazha in Malayalam.
This is Indian redwood.
This one which looks like red sandalwood is also Indian redwood?
Yes. This one is Actinodaphne malabarica.
This is chestnut tree, an exotic variety. Castanospermum australe.
What is this?
White dammar or Vateria indica.
Does it need a lot of sunshine?
No, a little will be enough. It’s an evergreen tree.
This is Dhaman, a forest tree. Gravia telifolia.
This is the sapling of ironwood tree. Xylia xylocarpa. The wood is so hard that you can’t drive a nail into it.
This is South Indian Vatica. Vatica chinensis. It’s a medium-sized evergreen tree with a profusion of leaves.
How do you help in its germination?
As we generally do, by sowing it on the ground.
By burying it in earth?
Yes. We dip it in water for some time before sowing.
I’ve not seen its seeds.
They are very tiny. Like mustard seeds. It goes dry easily. This is paradise tree.
This is indigo. It comes in two varieties. Blue and white.
This is yellow bell orchid. This is ironwood tree. The leaves are thick, like Spicate eugenia.
This one is cane.
It doesn’t have thorn, does it?
It has thorns but it climbs over trees. It is the type of cane that was used to beat children with. That is the sapling of pride of India. All these are the same.
This is the host plant on which the lac insect makes lac.
Is it indigenous or foreign?
They are seen in our forests. This is willow-leaved justicia. Justicia gendarussa. If we cut its twig and plant it, roots will sprout.
It is used in post-partum treatment for women.
This is devil’s backbone. We’ve kept it here to harvest cuttings. If the nodes are buried, new sprouts will appear. This plant comes in four varieties – with round, two-sided, three-sided and four-sided stems. This is night-flowering jasmine. Its sapling. This is red sandalwood tree. This is Andaman redwood. Pterocarpus dalbergioides. Lucky bean tree, a medicinal plant. Sage-leaved alangium, used to treat rabies. This is wax apple, a medium-sized tree.
There is the large variety of watery rose apple tree. This is the fruit of the mountain sweet thorn. It has thorns.
I have a huge mountain sweet thorn tree in my compound but I haven’t seen its fruits yet. This is bishop wood tree. Bischofia javanica. Pala indigo plant. Alstonia venenata. Also known as water hemp. It has great medicinal properties, and is used to treat haemorrhoids. Indian screw tree.
Does this grow into a tree?
No, it is a shrub. When it flowers, it is very beautiful.
This is the odal oil plant.
We saw one at Ramachandran sir’s kaavu. It was very thick. Three hundred years old. I need a couple of that plant.
This is another variety of bamboo. Cane. Dinochloa andamanica. It is a climber.
Doesn’t it grow thick?
It does. This is poison devil tree. This is coral plant, a medicinal plant. If its leaves are crushed and the juice dripped over bruises, the wound will heal quickly. It belongs to the Jatropha family. This is kadukka or haritaki or Terminalia chebuka (one of the three plants included in triphala – the others being gooseberry and bastard myrobalan). This is spotted sterculia, a medicinal plant, and this is wild durian, a staple of lion-tailed macaques. This is Chinese banyan. Ficus macrocarpa. All these are velvet apple plants. It is called Diospyros discolor. It is a side tree with seeds as large as cricket balls.
This is vermiculite, used for the germination of seeds. This tray has holes on the sides so that water drains out and does not stagnate inside. If it does, the roots will rot. The vermiculite is spread evenly, and the seeds of the flame-of-the-forest placed on it. These seeds had been kept in water for four hours in order to speed up germination. They are going to be sown. We are showing you how exactly it is done. This much is enough in the tray. Now we spread another thin layer of vermiculite over the seeds. We need not water them a lot because water will not remain in the tray. We’ll just drizzle water on it.
Do new trees come here – the ones we are not familiar with? What do you do with them?
This is a research centre also. So the personnel know which germination procedure is to be followed. They will examine the treatment. We have a seed centre too which looks exclusively into the seeds. The scientists find out how the germination has to be done and they give us a report. We follow their instructions. We sow them in the standard manner in order to find out whether they germinate naturally. We can understand the nature of a seed from its appearance. If its cover is hard, we dip it in water. If it looks like a normal one, we sow it in the usual manner.
We have been walking around and observing things for a couple of hours now but you still speak with enthusiasm. Have you been interested in plants since childhood?
Yes. And now I do farming too.
Generally, people consider this as a kind of chore. They go to the plant nursery, wrap up their work quickly, and are eager to leave. But you learnt all these scientific names of the plants after coming here.
Since I see plants on a daily basis, I am able to remember their botanical names. If I can’t, I make conscious efforts to recollect them.
All the plants you see here are sourced from the forests in the Western Ghats?
Yes. At the seed centre, we have staff to do the collection work, locally too. If some are unavailable, we buy from outside. That is the kind of work we do here.
What kind of people come here to buy these?
Many come here in order to collect plants for their Miyawaki forests. Then there are others who buy saplings in order to plant them in their compounds to beat the heat. There is a great demand for plants in Tamil Nadu as well because the government insists that afforestation be done in factory compounds. Forests are also being put up there on a large scale. Here too, a lot of people collect plants.
There are hopeful signs that people are interesting in afforestation, don’t you think?
The sales here are high. Now we have nearly four lakh saplings. We give away a lot for free, nearly 50,000 every year, as part of some project or another.
It is indeed a good fortune that you get to learn about plants in such a deep manner and do this kind of work.
Indeed. I don’t see this as a job. If any plant wilts or shows some problem, we attend to it.
What I usually see in plant nurseries is the sight of beautifully maintained saplings that have been sprayed with insecticides. No insects can be spotted there. But that is not the case here. I see plenty of insects. That means, there is no excessive use of pesticides here.
True. We don’t use too much insecticides, even when the leaves are attacked. You can see the insects here. But they too have to live. That is the environment-friendly attitude we maintain here. However, when the plants show signs of dying because of insect attack, we use legally permitted, neem-based organic pesticides. That too, only as a last resort. We don’t use them regularly.
That is there to see.
We walked around this place for a couple of hours, and saw a lot of plants. I had come here years back to purchase plants but I never knew there were so many plants being grown here or that it is so difficult to make the seeds sprout. Now I understand it better, and have a lot of respect for the work. This is a government institution. It shows a lot of enthusiasm to grow these plants and distribute them among the people. The attitude towards buyers is also a very friendly one. More importantly, what you see here is an environment-friendly ambience. Pesticides are not used on a large-scale basis as far as I can see because nearly all plants and seeds have some insect or the other on them. Care is taken to ensure that Nature is not destroyed but protected.
This is located only 10 km from Thrissur town. This is the Kerala Forest Research Institute at Peechi. You can come here on working days to collect saplings. Please come here and watch all this directly. Also make sure you buy at least one sapling. Or maybe even 8-10 saplings that each household can nurture in their plot. All of these have medicinal value and will bring benefits to us. The personnel here will inform you which plants are small and which are big, and help you pick the suitable ones. I request you to visit this place, buy saplings and grow them.