Native Tree species – a Relook from a Climate and Ecological Perspective

By Ravi Shankar Behera and Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu

Climate change is now a reality. The adverse effects of climate change are becoming evident globally with extreme weather events like cyclones, landslides, floods and droughts. There have been extensive losses to precious human life, livestock, standing crops, houses and infrastructure on an annual basis due to climate-induced weather variabilities. The frequency of such natural disasters is increasing over the last decade. Looking at possible mitigation strategies is the plantation of large number of trees to counteract the effects of green house gases and weather variabilities. In this regard, there has been a lot of emphasis on afforestation with the spotlight being on climate change and its imminent effects worldwide. While the concept of planting trees has been gaining popularity across the globe, there have been attempts to mobilize both government non government as well a public efforts to make the earth greener planting trees, little has been talked about the fact that trees alone are not forests. Though trees maybe the major visualized components in a forest and the backbone to fight climate change. An important component of the forests are the seasonal, annual and perennial grasses, shrubs and wild plants that emerge or flower during particular seasons and play a vital inalienable role in the sustenance of the ecosystem. They provide many ecosystem services like food, fodder, firewood and shelter for many organisms among which, insects are the biggest beneficiaries. Some of the wild plant species like Mimosa pudica (Touch me not) and other leguminous species, play a pivotal role in soil conservation by fixing of atmospheric nitrogen, further improving the soil fertility. Insects themselves are very important in an ecosystem as they form the crucial elements in the food chain and a major supply of food to the birds and other animals. They are also indispensable for pollinators like bees and butterflies, important for both cultivated and wild plants.

Deforestation for any reason, developmental activity or otherwise invariably leads to the loss of native flora and fauna, included in which are local herbs and shrubs which maybe seasonal, annual or perennial. Growing awareness in the West has led to the formation of plant belts across highways where wild flower seeds are sown to help nurture and retain not only the native plants but also other smaller organisms like insects and birds. Often seeds as corridors running along highways, supply a refuge for the wildlife. A glaring example of which is the planting of wildflowers for the monarch butterflies along the eastern United States. Similar efforts are also being undertaken to raise awareness among local communities to the importance of including local wild flowers with aesthetic values in their gardens landscape designs. However, there is still a potential to scaled up this model in India where majority of garden plants comprise of those obtained from nurseries or with some kind of utility for the households rather than with a view to nurture and sustain biodiversity.

Forest communities largely depend on traditional food crops and wild plant species to fulfil their requirements of food, agriculture, firewood, fodder, medicine and many other specific needs. Steady depletion of forest cover hinders food gathering from the wild and reduced in turn impacts the diversity of the food basket for the forest dwellers, impacting food and nutritional security. Wild plants not only provide a support for wildlife but many have medicinal value and are a part of the traditional healing systems prevalent in many parts of the world. While most wild plants are considered as weeds and frowned upon, some can be used as vegetables too and are of nutritional importance to communities where malnutrition is rampant and exogenous sources of vegetables resources are scanty. About 106 species of leafy vegetables are consumed by forest communities in Southern Odisha, 78 of them are wild species. People simply collect these greens when they are grazing animals, gathering fuel and fodder or fetching water. Fifteen of the species are wild as well as domesticated and 13 are under cultivation. The red hogweed or Boerhavia diffusa, which grows during the monsoon and post-monsoon period, is consumed. Sessile joyweed or Alternanthera sessilis is another weed that is known to help increase the flow of bile in the intestine and stimulate lactation. There is Commelina benghalensis (Bengal day flower or kaniseera), a tiny plant with beautiful purple flower that can easily be spotted across paddy fields.

The Kondh, Gadaba, Gond and Saora communities, familiar with the different species of wild edible tubers (Dioscorea spp.), depend largely during the monsoons, a food scarce period in the region. The widely used species are Pit Kanda (D. oppositifolia), Sika Kanda (D. hamiltonii) and Cherenga Kanda (D. wallichi) very popular among forest communities for their sweet taste and large size. Tribal communities use different types of brooms such as  Phula jhadu (Thysanolaena maxima) and Khajuri jhadu (Phoenix sylvestris)  used for sweeping floors of houses and Bajramuli (Sida cordata), which is hard and rough, is used to clean cattle sheds every day. A large number of fibre yielding plants grow in the forests of Koraput and districts in Western Odisha that include trees, shrubs and creepers of which Siali (Bauhinia vahlii), a wild creeper is highly preferred and preserved as sacred groves. Siali fibres are mainly used to make ropes of different sizes, which have tremendous use in the daily life of tribal communities. The other forest fibre product plants are Kumbhi (Careya arborea), Jhunka (Crotalaria spectabilis), Barabarasia (Agave americana), Oxalis corniculata or creeping wood sorrel, Water clover or Marsilea minuta etc. One can occasionally find the fronds, called sunsunia in Odia in the fields. Commercial cultivation of these wild greens will not only help improve the economic and nutritional condition of people, but also help in conserving biodiversity.

The trees have been mistaken to represent the forest when making attempts to replant and to restore the native ecosystems as a strategy to overocome the perils of global warming associated climatic patterns. It would be important to also look at inclsuion of lesser appreciated shrubs and herbs in the reforestation/plantation areas. People need to be made aware that just making the environment green with trees will only be a partial accomplishment and it is desirbale that other components are included in afforestation programmes where and when possible. A starting point would be the inclusion of wild perennial shrubs and grasses with ecological and or human utility in the proximity of trees in afforested/replanted areas. This would help to further increase the density of plants as well as help in the eco-restoration process through promotion of local fauna and flora. Special emphasis and priority to be given by the Forest department for species selection, including native trees and shrubs in the afforestation/replanting programmes. Saplings of native trees and wild shrubs need to be raise consciously in forest nurseries for large scale afforestation programmes in the states. Civil society organisation, citizens and children can play a proactive role in the conservation and propagation of the native species in their local environment.

About the Author:

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research , currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

3 Comments

  1. Sudhir Shukla says:

    Very Interesting article.Thank you Mr Ravi shankar Behera. It’s really with full of fact and eayopener for the government and for us too.

  2. O K R Sivagananam says:

    Nice message for us to keep the ecosystem in the right balance!

    Home is best, and so are native species that contribute to a healthy environment!

    Change is necessary, but a change for the sake of change is disastrous!
    It’s especially so in the matter of introduction of foreign plant species in our homeland!

    May we choose nature’s way when economic prosperity tempts us to embrace!

  3. Ravi Shankar Behera says:

    Thanks dear Sudhir ji and Sivagananam Sir.

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