I follow my nose to tell the climate. In summer, I smell jasmine (malli) flowers and Rangoon creeper (which blooms in white and turns a deep pink by morning). In the rainy season, it is the Indian cork (maramalli) that I sniff at, and in winter (what passes for the season in Chennai), it is pavazhamalli (parijatham). And throughout the year, it is the champa (frangipani).
We have a few varieties of malli at home and summer is heaven for them. As the heat increases, the plants flower with great joy. The market is also flooded with malli in summer.
The Rangoon creeper we have at home also loves summer. The flowers that bloom at night (they are pristine white at this time), spread their wonderful fragrance all around. The colour slowly changes to rose and by morning it is a deep pink.
The maramalli used to carpet the road to my school and even if I am dashing to school on a wet morning, I would spend time to pick up a handful of the flowers to adorn my desk in the classroom. Needless to say, I would stick a few in my hair also. In my mother’s time, they would snip the petals and use the long stem to blow like a ‘pee pee‘.
The only problem we had with having a pavazhamalli at home was that it would attract kambili poochis (caterpillars) and it would be a bother getting rid of them. Otherwise, passing through the streets of Madras (as it was known when I was young), I would sniff the flowers during those leisurely evening walks in winter.
So, I was thrilled to bits when a colleague came in possession of the coffee table book ‘Flora of Raj Bhavan’ (Chennai | Ooty) and I grabbed it from him.
It is an amazing book – compiled by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and brought out by the Raj Bhavan – filled with details about the plants / trees in the Raj Bhavan in Chennai and at Ooty. It gives details of the plant species, common name, family, colloquial names of each tree. And what was even more pleasing was that the use of each plant is mentioned along with eye-catching colour pictures.
Every tree’s leaves, trunk, flowers and fruits are captured by the cameraman (bless him/her, whoever s/he may be) with stunning clarity.
For easy reference, the flora are grouped into trees, shrubs, climbers and herbs. Among the trees, one can find sacred trees, medicinal trees, commercial trees, ornamental trees, forestry trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs.
There are a number of familiar trees like neem, coconut, nagalingam, naval, nelli, banyan, arasa maram, etc., on the Chennai campus.
It was surprising to see the number of medicinal trees in the 156 acres of Chennai Raj Bhavan and 87 acres of Ooty Raj Bhavan, including poovarasu, pungai and nochi (whose leaves are mosquito repellents). It was surprising to see that it is called Chaste Tree in English! There is also the childlife tree (karupala), used for treating infertility.
The campuses between them play host to many commercial trees like red sanders, teak, cashew, tamarind, etc. The ornamental trees fill one’s heart with glee. Imagine seeing trees like the golden shower (sarakondrai) and copper pod, flame of the forest in full bloom. They seem to jump out of the pages with a splash of colour.
Some of the Ooty trees include oak, apple, peach, walnut, European wild pear and firs. The most surprising inclusion was the Nilgiri rudraksh tree. The only time I saw a rudraksham tree was on a college campus in Coimbatore.
The Chennai Raj Bhavan also boasts of the state tree, the panai maram (palm tree), and the state flower, Gloriosa superba (sengaanthal).
Now that the Chennai Raj Bhavan has been thrown open to the public, I can’t wait for a chance to see some of this green wealth in their natural surroundings.