The Elephant Apple
More June Musings
Dillenia indica:
Chalta, Kanigala, Elephant Apple
A fortnight ago I had visited Dr. Krishnan (in retirement now – Dr. Krishnan introduced Digital Electronics to India and was last with NAL and continues consulting with RRI), at his home where I found growing outside his living room a Dillenia tree which looked a little ragged as the KPTCL seemed to have got to work on it to protect their wires.
When talking with Dr Krishnan I asked him about the Dillenia which is my favourite tree. I was ever so pleased when he told me that I was the only person who had identified this tree correctly and further that the Dillenia indica and the Amherstia nobilis were his two favourite trees. Dr. Krishnan, in 1967 had noticed what then seemed the lone two Dillenia trees in Bangalore both in Lalbagh gardens. Since then he has been disseminating information on the Dillenia and the Amherstia nobilis through talks, lectures, articles and slide shows in Bangalore. Dr. Krishnan informed me that he thought there might be over 70 Dillenia trees in Bangalore today.
The Dillenia indica is indigenous to India and named after Johann Jacob Dillenius a German botanist and Professor of Botany at Oxford. In 1737 Linnaeus named the genus; “Dillenia has of all plants the showiest flower; Dellinius is likewise conspicuous amongst botanists”. The tree is found in the sub-Himalayan tracts extending from Nepal through most of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Bangladesh and Myanmar and in Peninsular India through Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh to Bihar and Madhya Pradesh particularly on the banks of streams.
This tree - Chalta (Hindi & Bengali), Kanigala (Kannada) is a beautifully formed tree with fragrant flowers, striking globose fruit and equally striking leaves. We attach a photograph recently taken of a Dillenia at Lalbagh with the leaves shed and with a multitude of eye catching fruit.
The trunk is fluted, the bark and wood of the trees are a terracotta reddish brown and the flowers magnolia like and up to 5 inches across. The fruit are heavy and edible. The sepals, which have a sour apple taste, are used for the preparation of chutneys, pickles and prawn curry in Bengal. The rest of the fruit is fibrous and slightly acidic. Elephants love the fruit and ensure propagation of the plant at distances from where the fruit was eaten. As the tree grows on the banks of streams, the fruit is carried away by flowing water and the seeds sprout downstream. The new leaves, serrated and ridged are a tender luminous green.
The name Elephant Apple obviously is derived from the love of the fruit by Elephants who gobble up large numbers at a time. There is a symbiotic relationship between the elephant and the tree. The tree provides food for the elephant and the elephant disperses the seeds. The Dillenia leaves have been used by ivory workers in Karnataka for polishing ivory.
Both the tree and the elephant are truly indigenous and with great pride we can claim both as our own.

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