Book Review of Trees of Delhi

trees of delhi and birds

Following is a book review of the the much appreciated book Trees of Delhi compiled by the well known Pradip Krishen – for the woman and man on the street in Delhi! The Book can be bought online by clicking here.

Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide
Pradip Krishen, Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide. Dorling Kindersley (India) Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, India. 2006. 360 pp. INR 799 (Paperback). ISBN 0-14-400070-9.

Trees of Delhi

Pradip Krishen is not a taxonomist. Perhaps, that’s why his book makes taxonomy so interesting. The Trees of Delhi is a field guide written for the lay enthusiast that does not assume any prior understanding of plant taxonomy. The book is brilliantly presented and is a must have for anyone interested in Delhi’s flora. While relevant for all of north India, what makes this book particularly useful for Delhi are the details that Pradip has gone into, as he appears to have searched through the many nooks of the city for specimens of rare species.

When I first saw this book, I was struck by its visual appeal. It is the kind of book filled with beautiful pictures that you pick up to leaf through (no pun intended). As I browsed, I found many a familiar tree whose name I had not known. But a field guide must be easy to use in the field, and without giving it that trial, commenting on it would be akin to judging a standing sports car. So off I went book in hand, for a round in a residential area in south Delhi. The Trees of Delhi did not disappoint me, and as I zoomed through I was able to identify tree after tree while walking around at a surprisingly brisk pace.

Field guides tend to be cumbersome to use. A chair is often a useful accessory, so that you can rest at the base of the tree and laboriously key out the species. But the Trees of Delhi allows you to key your tree almost at a trot. It uses leaves as a way to distinguish between species. This is not unusual and many tree guides have long since abandoned identification by family or the use of floral traits that used to be thought of as taxonomically superior by botanists.

What makes the Trees of Delhi special is its simplicity: the only key that a layperson needs to use is a very simple pictorial one. Simplicity is possible due to the stunning photographs; photographs that are clear and easy to interpret are surprisingly rare in most field guides. The Trees of Delhi has the clearest pictures of any field guide I have used till date.

Over 11,000 colour pictures are used to describe 252 species of trees. Most guides have a single picture, often in the process missing vital parts that would help in identification. The Trees of Delhi often has separate pictures for flowers, leaves, fruit and bark so that one has several ways to confirm the identity of the tree. Leaves are divided into ten categories: five categories of simple leaves and five of compound.

No traditional taxonomical traits are adhered to; simple leaves are, for example, divided into three categories based on which part of the leaf is widest. Pine-like leaves include an eclectic mix of gymnosperms (pines and junipers, for example), simple-leaved angiosperms (such as the eucalyptus), and even some compound-leaved trees such as amla. The amla along with pine is a surprise; but, amla also makes an appearance in the ‘imli-like leaves’ section (‘feather compound’ section).

An important taxonomical trait—one appreciated by taxonomists and at the same time easy for the layperson to understand—is the arrangement of leaves on the stem or phyllotaxy as referred to by botanists. Are leaves arranged in  an opposite or an alternate fashion? It is a feature that is not given too much importance in the Trees of Delhi and perhaps this could have been used productively for easy identification.

Another minor gripe is the difficulty in identifying leafless trees. Seeing a Mexican silk-cotton (Ceiba speciosa) resplendent with its orchid-like blossoms left me frustrated, as I could not key it out despite the prominent blossoms and the obvious spines on the stem. A possible solution would be to have pictures of leafless trees that bear conspicuous flowers, or have other noticeable features, so as to enable the enthusiast to recognise them even when they are leafless.

A few minor quibbles with the key, for example, amaltas (Cassia fistula) in the section with ‘hairy’ leaves. It is true that the young leaflets are covered with down but one usually only sees the adult leaves. Or finding jungle jalebi (Pithecellobium dulce) in the ‘gulmohar-like leaves’ section even though it ‘looks’ like it should come under the ‘bael-like leaves’ section. In some cases, I also ran into a few problems when trying to decide if a leaf was widest in the middle or its lower one-third; but, then again the beauty of the classification system used by Pradip is its simplicity and one can forgive him these few times.

The Trees of Delhi is not just about trees; it is an exploration of the city of Delhi as well. It is filled with interesting details and rich in vignettes, both about trees and about the city. Sections such as ‘Back of the book’ and the ‘Uses’ column provide rich detail and many an interesting fact. The description of Delhi from a tree lovers’ perspective and the obviously extensive research are a treat. The map of ‘Old avenue trees’ in Lutyens Delhi will be of interest to any Delhiwallah.

But most unusual of all is that while achieving all these secondary aims, the Trees of Delhi does not compromise its primary aim at all: that of enabling one to easily identify trees. This is an important book not just for enthusiasts wishing to identify trees. This is the kind of book that comes along only once in a while and that is capable of reviving interest in an entire discipline.

As a botanist, I despaired when I first saw that this book had been written not by a biologist, but by a well known filmmaker. But I soon realised that botanists should thank Pradip for a book that is certain to revive interest in a field that is increasingly being neglected. There may be places where I question Pradip’s taxonomy, but it would be hard to find anyone who could create a manual of tree identification that is so lucid and enjoyable to use. This field guide is highly recommended for anyone with the remotest interest in the green world around us.

Rajesh Thadani
Executive Director, Centre for Ecology, Development and Research (CEDAR)
New Delhi – 110 016, India

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and distribution of the article, provided the original work is cited. The Online Journal can be accessed by clicking here. The Book Review can also be read here.

DG Correspondent

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