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The growing tribe of tree chroniclers on Instagram

Instagrammers are sharing information about spectacular specimens and different species, helping people to reconnect with trees

A pink trumpet tree. People from various walks of life have begun using Instagram to help people reconnect with trees.(iStock)

By Yashodhara Sirur

LAST PUBLISHED 16.04.2023  |  12:00 PM IST

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A delicate mauve jacaranda sways in the gentle summer breeze. A hoary peepul stands tall, wreathed with bright green heart-shaped leaves. The Tabebuia, often referred to as India’s cherry blossom, twirls its pink blossoms and attracts birds, butterflies and bees. Spring/summer is here and trees across the country are at their attractive best. All this magnificence, however, is lost on humans who spare trees only a cursory glance.

In The Overstory, a Pulitzer prize-winning paean to trees, Richard Powers says: “No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees—trees are invisible."

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Bringing trees into the public eye has become the need of the hour—for only when we truly notice them can we learn to love and protect them. Recognising this, people from various walks of life have begun using Instagram to help people reconnect with trees. Some of these Instagram pages share information about the different species of trees in a particular city or region, while others share spectacular specimens growing in public spaces. Yet others conduct tree walks. Some do all these things.

According to Aswathi Jerome, founder of the Instagram page Trees of Cochin, the first step is always to acknowledge. “At Trees of Cochin, a post begins when I find a tree on the road," she adds. Trees of Cochin is partly a blog-style documentation of trees and partly an information-filled journal. While the page is dedicated to the trees of Kochi, in Jerome’s home state of Kerala, it goes beyond trees.

“Looking at trees led me to look closely at the city—the names of roads, urban planning and administration, the institutions, and its people," she says. Jerome started researching the city’s past, the lives of people the roads are named after, the statues at city circles and the buildings and grounds the trees stood in. “The city added context to the tree I was talking about," she says.

Jerome uses trees as a starting point, steering the discourse towards urban biodiversity, climate change and ecology. “After following Trees of Cochin, if people are stopping to look at a tree on their way to somewhere, I consider that an achievement," says Jerome.

She also conducts tree walks and curates nature-based events. Jerome recently hosted a “Tree Party" in Fort Kochi for the Kochi Muziris Biennale—a get-together for tree lovers in a space with trees. Conversations ranged from the properties of plants and the effects of Dutch colonisation on the flora of the Malabar to Hortus Malabaricus, Hendrik van Rheede and Itty Achudan’s seminal compilation on the medicinal plants of the Malabar region, published in the 17th century.

This spring, Jerome collaborated with other nature-based Instagrammers on a project called #Fofseries. Short for “Flame of the Forest", the project documented all the trees which bloom in shades of red and orange during the spring/summer season, all of which are also often mistaken for the “Flame of the Forest" tree.

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Mallika Ravikumar Iyer beside a pomegranate tree. The posts on her Instagram page @treetalkwithmallikaravikumar are a deep dive into the mythology, folklore and word-of-mouth stories about different tree species.

If Jerome looks at urban natural heritage, Mallika Ravikumar Iyer, a Mumbai-based author and former lawyer, adds a different layer to the trees she chronicles. Her focus is on ethnobotany—the human and cultural associations of trees and plants. Iyer is constantly on the lookout for stories and idioms about trees. The posts on her Instagram page @treetalkwithmallikaravikumar are a deep dive into the mythology, folklore and word-of-mouth stories about different tree species. Her animated and fact-rich storytelling ensures trees capture the imagination of adults and children alike.

“I found that children (and adults too) get put off if you began tree walks with— ‘This is a silk-cotton tree, its botanical name is Bombax ceiba,’ and so on," explains Iyer. “But if you start with nuggets, such as ‘Do you know how Bhima once fooled Draupadi with the help of silk-cotton logs?’, people become curious. The story helps them remember the tree for days after the walk."

She has extended this storytelling to books as well. In 2021, Iyer authored a children’s book titled Tracing Roots. Published by Karadi Tales, it brought together stories from folklore about 12 common Indian trees.

Her YouTube channel consists of nine-minute shorts, where she shares stories, trivia and folklore on trees. Having moved to Europe recently, she is now keen to explore the trees there.

Chandan Tiwary, a law professional based in Delhi, took to chronicling trees as a result of the #FiftyTrees Project started in 2018, the brainchild of environmentalist Siddharth Agarwal. It was a passion project and a call to citizens to document 50 neighbourhood trees. Tiwary was one of many who heeded the call.

A ghost tree documented by Trees of Delhi.

The 44-year-old comes from Bareja, a village in Bihar, and grew up around trees but he realised he couldn’t identify much of the flora in Delhi. It was not easy for a layman with a passing interest in trees to find out the name of the leafy wonder by the roadside. Bridging the knowledge gap and making information more accessible became a motivation for his Instagram page Trees of Delhi.

Tiwary takes us on a vivid journey across prominent public places like Lodhi Gardens, Safdarjung tomb complex and Rajghat. His stunning photography makes the page a treat to follow. While he doesn’t conduct planned tree walks, he welcomes followers to join him on impromptu weekly walks around the city.

Other cities have their own groups, be it @TreesOfPune, @TreesOfPondicherry, @TreesofHyderabad or @TreesOfBombayandMaharashtra.

Anand Pendharkar, wildlife biologist and CEO of the conservation organisation SPROUTS, says, “These pages create immense awareness among urban masses about the multifarious values of trees. They excite people into noticing neighbourhood trees—something botanists and environmentalists have been trying for years." There is a flip side, though. The accounts may spotlight common urban trees and promote ecological exotics as being indigenous to certain regions. That can lead to problems.

However, there is a flipside as well. Many of these accounts put a spotlight on common urban trees and promote ecological exotics as being indigenous to political regions. Take, for instance, the Chir Pine, which is native to the Himalayan sub-region across several countries. "However, if the pine tree is deemed indigenous to India, then it gets planted in Delhi, Mumbai or Kochi. Bigger problems arise when non-indigenous species such as Gulmohar, Jacaranda, Tabebuia, Sausage, or Cannonball trees are over-glorified and get planted in large numbers in cities for pure aesthetics. These are unsuitable in terms of ecology and public health," adds Pendharkar.

Yet as cities become concrete traps, trees have become things to cherish. The goal is not only to make people aware of the trees we share space with but to foster love and spread the gospel of nature. As Iyer puts it, “After all, you can’t care for something you don’t know about."

Yashodhara Sirur is a Mumbai-based part-time writer, full-time IT professional.

Also read: How citizen initiatives are saving Mumbai's fallen trees