“The garden was overgrown and damp. As we set foot in it, I could almost feel my hair curling from the humidity. Brick pathways snaked around specimens of trees, hand-painted tin signboards hammered crookedly at their roots, identifying their local and Latin names. Sundari, sal, kathal, magnolia, bel — I could now read the Bangla script.”
from This Innocent Corner
The National Botanical Garden in Dhaka is exquisite. Located in the Mirpur neighbourhood, it is one of the most peaceful places in the city. Many residents know this and flock there on Friday afternoons to find a quiet corner in which to picnic, or just to stroll along the pathways and experience the sights and scents of the plant life of Dhaka. Many young lovers can be found there — sitting close and still and silent. However, with 84 hectares of well-designed space, there is much privacy for the lovers, and still room left over for the families and tourists. I spent many an afternoon there, enchanted by the atmosphere. It’s a treasure in the city both for people seeking quiet green spaces and for all levels of botanists.
The sundari (Heritiera fomes) is one tree you will see in the garden. It commonly grows in mangroves, though it is a fresh-water loving tree. It’s a tall tree with a beautiful canopy. Apparently, the wood makes good boats. However, there is concern about the species in Bangladesh, partly due to overexploitation, but also to the increasing salinity in the mangrove.
The sal tree (Shorea robusta) is another tall and beautiful tree found in the garden. It has broad leaves which, in many places in South Asia, are shed in the dry season of late winter-early spring. Following the dramatic spring rains, the trees burst into leaf very quickly. Goats and cattle can often be found munching on the fallen leaves. The leaves are so broad and flexible, even when dry, they are stitched together in some places to make bowls and plates.
The kathal (Artocarpus heterophyllus or A. heterophylla), also known as jackfruit, is a prolific tree. It bears fruit in large lobes which often grow directly off the trunk. When ripe and harvested, the bumpy, brittle skin can be peeled to reveal juicy pockets of flesh growing around seeds. When we lived in Dhaka, we had several of these trees growing around our small apartment building. Everyone was impatient for the day when the fruit was pronounced ready and we would crack one open and dig in. Many people find the taste very strong, though I like it. It also makes a delicious curry.
What can I say about the magnolia (Magnolia)? There are 210 species in the family, growing all over the world. This is the season it blooms in the mild part of Canada where I live. In fact, I have an extraordinary pink magnolia in bloom right now.
The Asian varieties tend to be more robust, like their ancestors. Magnolias evolved before the appearance of bees (there are fossilized specimens dating back 20 million years). Beetles were the pollinators and so, as a result, the flower petals were quite tough and waxy. This quality remains to this day.
The bel tree (Aegle marmelos) is a slightly smaller tree that grows all over South and Southeast Asia. It bears a delicious fruit with a very tough shell that encases a woody fruit. It is sometimes called the wood apple, and can be eaten in several different ways. I think the most delicious is when it is strained and served as a cool drink called sharbat. And yes, according to my Hobson-Jobson dictionary of Anglo-Indian Words, this word is directly related to sorbetto, sorbet and sherbert.
There is one more plant mentioned in this section of the novel which I would like to show you.
“Luna showed me the tiny lajja-patta plants whose delicate fringe of leaves folds up when touched.
‘How does it work?’ I asked.
She shrugged. I brushed another to see it happen again. Then, I remained still, waiting until the pale, closed up plant unfurled itself once more. It took much longer to open than it had to close.”
- from This Innocent Corner
The lajja-patta (literally, shy leaf) is also known as the sensitive plant because its leaves fold up when disturbed by touch, wind and even warmth. This is called seismonastic movement. It does this through a very complicated chemical process in which the water which pressurizes individual plant cells is released quickly and temporarily. Of course this evolved as a defense mechanism for the plant. What hungry animal wouldn’t be scared off by a moving plant? How many insects will be able to hold on when the leaf they are gripping shrivels up?
It grows all over the world, though is native only to South and Central America. In South Asia, it is seen as an invasive species. If you click on the image below, you can see the folding take place.
Of course, there are clumps of towering bamboo in the garden as well, and a cultivated section in which roses, marigolds, salvia, dahlias and other enormous flowers can be found in season. Best time to visit: winter. But at any time of year the garden has its own unique charms.