Along the bylanes of Marol-Maroshi in Andheri East, one can spot a strange looking ‘upside down’ tree. With a swollen base and sparse foliage, the African-origin tree, called Baobab, looks like it has been planted with its roots jutting out in the air. The city has over 40 of them.
“These trees are found wherever the Portuguese settled in India. They considered these trees auspicious and so carried a seed or a sapling wherever they travelled and planted them. It is likely that they brought them from Africa. In SEEPZ there are 26 of them,” said Dr Rajendra Shinde, head of Botany department, St Xavier’s College.
In SEEPZ area, seven Baobab trees are in St John The Baptist Church. In the over 500-year-old, quaint church, built by the Portuguese, the Baobabs stand distinctly among the leafy 100-acre premises. Known to live for up to 1,000 years, the Baobabs have snugly grown against the heritage walls of the church since four centuries.
“The Baobabs were planted in 1579 when the Portuguese constructed this church. These are medicinal plants. For those living in this village earlier, this area with huge trees was like a picnic spot,” says Nicholas Almeida, president of St John The Baptist Church Save Committee.
Since 1970, when it was shut, the dilapidated church opens only once a year in May for the feast of the church’s patron saint St John The Baptist. “The Baobabs inside the church are among the rare few in the city which are well-protected. Since they are within the church compound they are not at the risk of being cut down or its roots being concretised,” said Zico Fernandes, an Andheri East resident who has named the seven trees as the ‘Seven Sisters’.
While their roots are covered by tar, their trunks face scars from years of nailing advertisements and hoardings. “The civic authority needs to ensure that they leave soil around the root while tarring the road. Most of the Baobabs today have tar all around their roots. Meanwhile, people find the Baobabs ideal to nail their placards and hoardings,” added Fernandes, who has started an Instagram page called ‘Baobabs of Mumbai’ to conserve them.
Bearing the scientific name Adansonia digitata and locally known as ‘Gorakh-chinch’, it holds massive amount of water in its hollow trunk. It’s fruit is called ‘Monkey-bread’. “At the end of the dry season, it produces white flowers. These flowers bloom at night and are pollinated by bats,” said Dr Rajdeo Singh, a researcher from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
A few Baobabs can also be spotted in Bandra, Santacruz, Malad, Colaba and Byculla Zoo.
“These are ‘Green Monuments’ of the city. While we do not know the exact age of these trees, it is likely that the oldest Baobab in Mumbai is the one outside Bhabha Hospital in Bandra, which would be at least 450-500 years old,” said Dr Ashok Kothari, president, National Society for the Friends of Trees.
Meanwhile, one of the oldest trees in the city on SV Road in Santacruz faces the risk of being chopped down for the construction of the upcoming Metro 2B. “It is in the middle of the road along the alignment of the elevated metro,” said tree activist Zoru Bhathena.