Chennai as a city was formally founded 382 years ago, by the British East India Company. The city today has unique aesthetics in part from its colonial history- from British-era courts, museums, and bridges, to the many temples in and around the city built over many centuries, to its modern boulevards all set along a bustling coast.
Amid this metropolis are the many ancient trees that have stood witness to the city's growth from a British cantonment to a bustling city on the Coromandel Coast.
A wide variety of trees were brought into the city by the Arab traders, the friars, and the British. Over the centuries these trees have adapted to the soil and have become resilient to the local climate.
Although rare and relatively unknown, Boababs which are native to Madagascar can be found in and around Chennai even today. These were planted by the British nearly 200 years ago. An Old Baobab tree still stands inside the Egmore Museum theatre compound. It is one of the few that still exist in Chennai.
A tree that predates the city of Madras still stands alive and the word of its existence has traveled far and wide, attracting tourists from all over the world. The Great Banyan tree, known as the Aalamaram is believed to be over 450 years old and is one of the largest Banyan trees in the world. It is found inside the Theosophical Society in Adyar.
The tree continues to grow despite losing its main trunk to a gale in 1989. Its prop roots are spread out across 65,000 square feet!
In India, plants, and trees not only have ecological significance but also cultural and religious importance. Trees are considered sacred. The Sangam literature, the earliest writings in Tamil, allude to a variety of flora and fauna. The Vanni Maran, which the text describes to have drought-resistant qualities, is one such example.
Such trees are sacred to the land which is why they are found near many temples in the city. In Thiruvanmiyur’s Marundeeswarar temple, the Vanni Maram is the Sthala Vruksham of the tree of the place.
Several trees in Chennai are inexorably tied to local culture and customs. The Neem tree or Azadirachta indica has a special place in the native culture because it flowers right before the Tamil New Year. The bitter neem flower is used in making the New Year Pachadi, a traditional dish with a blend of all six flavors. The flower not only lends it one of the six flavors, but also a philosophical message. Although bitter to taste, the flower is valuable as it is a vermifuge and is said to kill worms in the intestines.
The tamarind tree or Tamarindus indica is an evergreen tree that has great economic importance. Its fruit - tamarind, or puli is used for its sour tartness, a much-used flavor in many South-Indian dishes.
Other trees that dot the Chennai coast include the Indian beech tree, Indian gooseberry or Amla tree, and various palm trees. Found all over the city and its coastline is the coconut palm, commonly referred to as a coconut tree. Other palm trees commonly seen in Chennai are Fishtail palms and Royal palms. The coconut tree, in particular, is used extensively within Chennai and other southern regions like Kerala and Karnataka.