I hadn’t heard of a tree called Buddha Coconut till BBMP gave four saplings for our first tree plantation drive in July 2010. I didn’t know the names of some others too but we were getting them for free at a point when we, trustees, didn’t have the money to organize such an exercise. The planting site was the stretch beside the walking track. There was no electricity wire overhead and the medley of trees could grow to any height which they did, at different paces. The Buddha Coconut (Pterygota alata) grew like a lanky teenager with a thin trunk and a thick mop of big leaves.
We kept our eyes on this and indeed, on all the saplings, taking pride in how well they were doing. Four months later, we found 25 of them had been mutilated overnight. One or more individuals had taken out their anger on these tender ones breaking them into two and pulling the crown down like peeling a banana. Much like discarding the peel, the leafy upper part of some had been flung elsewhere. This thoughtless, brutal act must have happened the previous night because the leaves had lost their freshness and were browning and curling. The victims were the Portia tree (Thespesia populnea) and Tree of Gold (Tabebuia argentea) at the two ends of the slum side bund. We had a fair idea of who the tree killers must have been but without proof, did not want to accost anyone.
Mutilated saplings at Puttenahalli Lake 2 Nov 2010
We couldn’t save the mangled trees. Their space would be occupied by others but we were not going to forget this incident and urged the gardeners to be alert.
This was how a few months later, in August 2011, they caught a man breaking one of the Buddha Coconut saplings. The man had been fully drunk when he entered the lake and the gardeners had kept their eyes on him. He had been dressed impeccably in a clean white dhoti and shirt, with a towel thrown around his neck to wipe off the sweat perhaps. He had a wrist watch and a neatly folded umbrella. For all this, he laid on the paved but dusty pathway, rested his head on the kerb stone and slept. The gardeners too returned to their work. Hearing a loud snap, they turned around to see the man flinging away the crown of a Buddha Coconut tree and tottering to the next, a Nile Tulip (Markhamia lutea). The gardeners “arrested” the man and called me over. Communication was impossible because the fellow slurred. I got him escorted out of the lake premises with a strict warning for whatever it was worth to never return. We inspected the broken ends. It was a clean cut.
As a child I used to watch my father graft rose plants. With a blade he used to cut a T in a briar stalk and gently lift its flaps to insert the node of another rose. He would wrap the grafted spot with a narrow strip of plastic and plant the stalk in a pot with others. What if we tied the two broken ends of the Buddha Coconut together? Would it heal? There was nothing to lose anyway. The gardeners trimmed off some of the leaves, matched the two broken ends and used a short stick as a splint. One man held the top in place while the other cut a strip from a discarded plastic carry bag and wound it firmly around to immobilize the site. Now all we could do was hope for the best.
The drunken perpetrator, 2 Aug. 2011
Gardeners trying to heal the broken Buddha Coconut tree, 2 Aug. 2011
The patched up tree, 2 Aug. 2011
Over the next few days, the remaining leaves turned yellow and fell off but the trunk stayed green. Gradually, like a giant waking up, it began to grow once again losing somewhere along the way, the plastic bandage that had brought it back to life. Very soon, we could identify the tree only by its neighbour, the Nile tulip, because it looked like the other three in height and girth. We now waited for them to flower and searched the ground, rather than look so high above. After a while, we forgot to do this as well because we found that the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects were increasing and needed volunteers to identify and keep count of these.
The Buddha Coconut recovering well, 26 Sept 2013
In 2021, one of our volunteers, Dr Kaustubh Rao, offered to lead a BioBlitz at the lake. According to the National Geographic this “is an event that focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time, usually 24 hours.” One drizzly, muggy July morning 15 adults and kids turned up for the two-hour walk. I preferred to stay warm and snug indoors. An hour later, our events coordinator, Sapana Rawat, telephoned. ‘Hey, you know the Buddha Coconut has fruit?’ she asked.
Buddha Coconut tree with fruit. Photo credit: Govindan Iyer, 18 July 2021
I dropped everything and rushed to the lake and what do you know? One of the four Buddha Coconut trees indeed had fruit hanging like pendants between the large green leaves. The woody, nut like fruit looked like small dehusked coconuts. Why the Buddha though?
When the flush of excitement abated, I looked around to see which tree this was. What do you know? It was the one which we had patched up several years ago!