building with tree

Living Legacies

Fizala Tayebulla

Heritage is a legacy of important tangible and intangible assets passed down through the generations. An individual, a family, a community, or even a city or country could inherit a heritage property. There are three forms of heritage recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): Cultural, Natural and Mixed. The author emphasises the living heritage of our towns and communities in this blog which are the Heritage Trees. These legacy trees are historical artefacts with biological and cultural significance. At ranging scales, a heritage tree creates a feeling of continuity, an expressive tie that people experience in a particular region or landscape. Because of their characteristic of age rarity, or condition, these trees are of biological, cultural, or historical interest. These trees are important and valuable components of landscapes’ natural and cultural history, and they are among the country’s oldest living heritages.

building with tree
Banyan Tree at Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia (Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com)

What are heritage trees?

“A notable specimen because of its size, form, shape, beauty, age, colour, rarity, genetic constitution, or other distinctive features; a living relic that displays evidence of cultural modification by native or non-native people, including strips of bark or knot-free wood removed, test holed cut to determine soundness, furrows cut to collect pitch or sap, or blazes to mark a trail, a prominent community landmark; a specimens associated with a historic person palace, event or period, a representative of a crop grown by ancestors and their successors that is at risk of disappearing from cultivation, a tree association with local folklore, myths, legends or traditions, a specimen identified by members of community as deserving heritage recognition.”

-Peter L Aird,
Forester and Scholar

Any one or even a mix of the criteria can result in the tree being accorded the status of a heritage tree.

Indicative criterion for designation as Heritage Tree (Illustration Credit: Author, sourced from Bangalore Environment Trust)

Heritage Trees around the world

In the United States of America, a 70 feet tall California sycamore (Pseudotsuga menziesii) tree popularly known as the “Eagle Tree” is a heritage of Los Angeles, named aptly so by its residents because it used to be a nesting site for large eagles in the past. In the suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa, stands the “Old Slave Tree” which is a 500-year-old milkwood (Sideroxylon inerme) tree that is named after its dark history of the slave trade. The tree was a location where ‘slaves’ were bought and sold and some were even hung to death from its branches. This tree later became the landmark tree where the Dutch ceded defeat to the British and was renamed the “Treaty Tree”. Another tree in Cape Town- a saffron pear tree (Pyrus communis) which was brought from Holland which is believed to be the oldest living tree in the country, and still bears fruits is an important Heritage tree of South Africa. Some trees in Japan are testimonies to the devastating bombings of World War II as they still stand today with burns and scars but still alive. In other countries like the United Arab Emirates, some trees like the Ghaf Tree (Prosopis chineraria) are considered Heritage not because of their history but because of their various uses and importance to the community.

Some Heritage Trees of India

Tamarind Tree of Gwalior
(Source: commons.wikimedia.org)

The Tamarind Tree of Gwalior: The Tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) in Madhya Pradesh is not an uncommon tree species but this heritage tree is of iconic value because it is planted atop the tomb of Tansen- the legendary singer and poet who was a court musician of Akbar’s Navaratna. It is believed that consuming the leaves of the tree of a decoction of the bark will make one’s voice as melodious as that of Tansen!

Peepal tree at Clock Tower, Dehra Dun: The Clock Tower of Dehra Dun is a landmark of the city but so is its adjacent Peepal tree (Ficus religiosa) which is of historic value as it was planted by freedom fighter an poet “Nightingale of India”, Sarojini Naidu.

Peepal Tree, Dehra Dun (Source: http://www.euttaranchal.com)
Baobabs of Maharashtra Source: commons.wikimedia.org)

Baobabs of Maharashtra: The Baobab Trees (Adansonia) of Mumbai city are unique in not only in its appearance but also because they are native to Madagascar, Africa and Australia. The 120 Baobab trees found in Mumbai are believed to be planted by Abyssinian and Portuguese traders about a thousand years ago.

Neem Tree at Sabarmati Ashram: This Neem tree (Azadirachta indica)is a landmark of the historic Salt Satyagraha (Dandi March) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat is a heritage tree because of the political importance of the event in India’s freedom struggle.

white and brown house under tree
Neem Tree at Sabarmati Ashram, Gujarat (Photo by Jai Suthar on Pexels.com)


There is a revived national interest in heritage trees in India because of the growing environmental consciousness and mindfulness of civic responsibility. Although we are yet to have a National Tree Census, states like Maharashtra have already had green-lighted the formation of a body of Tree Authority in local civic bodies and councils concerning the protection of trees in general and Heritage Trees in specific. For one thing, heritage trees are living cultural artefacts that connect the city’s past and present, as well as being beneficial to the environment. There is no greater way to show civic pride in our cities than by preserving heritage trees that are rooted in the city’s past.

Reference:

Mundoli, S. and Nagendra, H., 2020. Heritage Trees of Urban India: Importance and their Protection. [online] Available at: <https://bngenvtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/2020-09-09_Report-on-Heritage-trees.pdf&gt;

Sanjana Bhalerao. (2021) Explained: The Maharashtra govt’s proposed amendment for protection of ‘heritage trees’ | Explained News,The Indian Express. Retrieved October 03, 2021, from https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-maharashtra-govts-proposed-amendment-for-protection-of-heritage-trees-7354594/

Abhijay Jha. (2021) Tree census on cards to check health of green cover in Gzb | Noida News – Times of India. Retrieved October 03, 2021, from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/noida/tree-census-on-cards-to-check-health-of-green-cover-in-gzb/articleshow/83446094.cms

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