The eucalyptus, as we know, is an unwelcome guest in our part of the world. Most blue gum trees in the northern hemisphere are imports from Australia. They are enthusiastically employed by
revenue forest departments to ‘afforest’ wastelands and wetlands, to drain swamps, and in social forestry projects of questionable value aimed at producing pulpwood.
I used to think our British masters were to blame for introducing it in India, but it emerges that the original culprit was a certain patriot. Yes, it was that great gardener, Tipu Sultan, who first planted eucalypt seeds that he received from Australia in Nandi Hills near Bangalore as early as 1790. Now, this cannot be very hard to dispute because the Tiger of Mysore was known to be an ardent collector of trees and seeds, and it was his zeal for silviculture that led to the flowering of his father’s vision: from a garden of red roses, Lal Bagh grew into a sylvan conservatory. And with Tipu’s fall, the garden passed into the hands of British masters in whose employ the visionary German gardener and botanist Gustav Hermann Krumbeigel presided over the curation of treasures Bangalore the Garden City enjoys, albeit in diminishing numbers, to this day.
We digress. Back to our tree. Many years after Tipu had afforested the bald, rocky slopes of Nandi Hills with about 16 species of eucalyptus, the Australian invasive was introduced to the Nilgiris. Or the Neilgherries, as John Sullivan, the Collector of Coimbatore, identified it in 1819 before founding Ootacamund and inviting his countrymen to settle the hills. By 1843, regular plantations of various species of Eucalyptus were being raised in the hills, which were originally named for the bluish hue imparted by the periodic blooms of the violet Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana). In years to come, ignorant and overzealous raconteurs gave currency to the myth that it was the invasive blue gum, planted over the downs and meadows of the Nilgiris, that lent its name to the hills.
Today, eucalyptus has wormed its way into our landscape and dug its roots in with great tenacity. So much so that there now exists a hybrid Eucalyptus cultivar indigenous to our parts. It is known as the Mysore Gum.
With travel and reading, some of my hostility for the eucalyptus has been tempered somewhat. I began to admire them on a fleeting visit to Melbourne last year where I saw the trees at home in all their glory. And more recently, on a brief trip to Singapore last May, I met one species that inspired respect. This – the Mindanao Gum Tree (Eucalyptus deglupta) – is the only species of Eucalyptus native to the northern hemisphere. It occurs naturally in the forests of the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, as well as New Britain, New Guinea and the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Seram. It has also found fancy as an avenue tree and an arbour tree in parts of the world far removed from its native haunts, particularly Hawaii.
Katong Park in Singapore stands on the site of Fort Tanjong Katong, an old sea-fort erected by the British to repel Japanese invasions. The fort served its purpose from 1879 to 1901 but it proved to be a strategic burden for many reasons and was sunk and buried by the British after World War I. Only one excavated bastion remains of the original structure, which stands in a small, landscaped park between Meyer Road and the East Coast Park. This garden preserves a single Rainbow Eucalyptus, registered locally as a heritage tree. Nearly all species of Eucalyptus are recognizable for the peeling bark on their trunks, but in the Mindanao Gum Tree, the patterns left behind are colorful and variegated. Overlapping layers of pink, green, red and violet are revealed as the bark ages and peels. The fresh green bark is exfoliated constantly, and so the tree always has a palette of colors to show off. In the moist, mulchy rainforest soil of tropical Singapore, this Mindanao Gum Tree has grown into a tall, robust and venerable citizen, which in this country is another word for an immigrant who has earned enough respect to be invited to stay.
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