Review of `Trees of Delhi`, a book by Pradip Krishen

  • 30/07/2007

Review of `Trees of Delhi`, a book by Pradip Krishen Book>>Trees of Delhi A Field Guide by Pradip Krishen Penguin Books India>> Dorling Kindersley 2006


Concrete jungle is a phrase often used to describe a lot of urban areas. Delhi is no exception. It's certainly not the archetypal naturalist's delight. But Pradip Krishen is no archetypal naturalist: he is a filmmaker, photographer and author. Krishen has now written a book that every tree lover in the city would want to carry to the field. And the field remains a variegated one, as Krishen shows.

He has identified around 250 tree species in Delhi. Of course, some of them are represented by just one specimen, but we can still take heart from the species diversity.

One of the most exciting aspects of my undergraduate botany curriculum was collecting plants for herbariums.The names were great conversation starters and frankly, I like to brag that Trees of Delhi has provided me new ammunition. It has been long since I left college. Since then there has been a steady accumulation of unidentified "specimens" around the city. The book has taken care of most uncertainties pertaining to trees.

Krishen has taken a slightly unorthodox route to taxonomy but it works pretty well. Unlike a botanist, who would have relied mainly on flowers, he has used leaves to divide the trees in the city into 10 groups. This gives all the exotic trees in Delhi, that never or rarely flower, a place and more importantly, a name. The photographs of leaves, flowers and fruits and description of a tree's main characteristics take identification a step further. And if you are still in doubt, the author tells you exactly where to go looking for a particular tree in Delhi.

There is a rare personal touch to the information. I especially liked the little sketches of trees with a person besides (sometimes with a dog) that go with the general information. Krishen's personal acquaintance with the trees is evident in the section on Delhis Ridge. There is also historical information about trees that we encounter almost every day on the citys roads. This includes the 13 types of avenue trees planted by the British and chosen only because they did not obstruct the view.

Books like this are more than just a list of common trees. They tell us how the vegetation of an area has changed. The only reliable book on plants in Delhi so far has been J K Maheshwari's Flora of Delhi, a csir publication dating back to 1963. Maheshwari had collected information on trees and plants in the city as part of his doctoral thesis in the department of botany, University of Delhi. He submitted the thesis in the late 1950s and it was later converted into a reference book for botany students. Other than trees, Maheshwari also talked about herbs and shrubs in Delhi. The book had beautiful handmade diagrams and as is expected from a botanist, Maheshwari relied on flowers for identification.

But Trees of Delhi has been written with a different purpose; unlike Maheshwari, who wanted to study and map the dominant flora in Delhi, Krishen is more interested in exotics. There is some overlap between the two books which gives an indication of what might have happened during the 45 years' interregnum between them. This is also because Krishen has written extensively about the Ridge, the only natural forest in the area. When Maheshwari's book came out, the Ridge was more extensive than what it is today but signs of things to come were already there. Maheshwari writes that parts of the Ridge were being cut down to develop residential areas.

By the time Krishen wrote his book, the Ridge has already shrunk to little pockets. This has had the expected effect on the vegetation.Maheshwari's list, which focuses only on the dominant flora of the city, includes the dhau tree or Anogeissus pendula. Krishen's book puts this down as a tree at risk of disappearing from the city. Most of the trees mentioned in the later book are exotics that have been planted in private gardens. The older book just mentions around 45 garden trees.

Maybe, just maybe, the book will motivate people to protect the trees in their neighbourhoods. After all, the tree next door could be the only one of its kind in the city.

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