MEETING WITH THE OMBU TREE

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While here on the island of Gozo I have been taking note of and enjoying the trees unfamiliar to me. It is nice and interesting to find out what they are called and then to search on Google information about their uses, growth, country of origin and so on, it keeps me quiet busy at times. Then I will take many photos of all the different attributions, leaves, flowers, seeds, seed hulks, shoots, trunks etc. And of course I like to share this in my blog, my blog is after all a celebration of all the earth so generously has to offer to us and to life itself. And so here goes, I hope you enjoy.


The Ombu tree, or to give it its proper name the Phytolacca dioica L. is an attractive tree. I found it growing in the area of Ghajnsielem along the main road. I was amazed to learn that this tree is actually an evergreen shrub that can become quite old and grow to look like a rather large tree. I became fascinated by the beautiful glossy dark green leaves, looking very healthy and growing very vigorously out of the trunk. Apparently the more you cut it, the more fiercely it grows. Its trunk is a soft spongy wood, the rings are loose and not at all like proper timber rings. It is resistant to fire and drought and this is due to its many trunks which store water very efficiently in its large base. Its sap is poisonous. The Ombu is a South American relative of the pokeweed (P. Americana) It is indigenous to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, there it grows easily in the wild, and it is there that it manages to survive on the pampas. Put to good use because of its large canopy it shelters both animals and humans alike, but is especially good for the many cattle and so is of agricultural value.

Being a dioecious plant it produces male and female flowers on separate trees. The flowers are greenish white, little and many on one long spike. The fruit is green and is clustered in a bunch together, I see both flowers and fruits on the tree at this time (November). To date I have not myself seen the seeds but believe that they are brown, small and glossy. I shall be on the look out for them just to find out.
I learnt that extracts of the Ombu have Antifungal potencies which would probably make it interesting to Naturopaths or to pharmaceuticals.
Some of its uses are:
• Fodder – leaves are used as fodder in time of drought.
• Medicine – infusion of leaves has been used as a laxative, but don’t take my word for it please.
• Hot drink – locally the leaves may be used as a hot drink. (I am not planning to try it out myself not being sure of what the result will be).
• Soapy juice – containing salts of lime and potash.
• Shade in regions where other trees won’t grow – in the pampas it is the only tree that will naturally grow and provide shelter.
• Bonsais – something I did not know is that it is an ideal tree to grow as a bonsai, nice to know!
• Dyes – juice extracted from the berries can be used as a source of dyes.
• Berries – apparently the berries are eaten by birds as they are not affected by the toxin as the seeds contained within the berries passes through the bird intact.
I also read that in South Africa Ombu is treated as an invasive plant, possible because it grows so rapidly. Here in Gozo there is more and more emphasis on the growing of indigenous trees and plants, and eradicating to an extent the growth of invasive plants and trees. This is, of course, a tendency all over Europe these days. I am not sure at which time the Ombu tree was introduced in the Maltese islands and why, I wonder if it was introduced because of the high temperatures in the summer months, the drought some years, and the lack of tree cover in general.

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I looked up a bit more on the antifungal activity which extracts of the Ombu can provide. Here is a link to a paper.
The antifungal activity of saponin-rich extracts of phytolacca dioica and of the sapogenins obtained through hydrolysis.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45826292_Antifungal_Activity_of_Saponin-rich_Extracts_of_Phytolacca_dioica_and_of_the_Sapogenins_Obtained_through_Hydrolysis
I also read through the following information ‘Oyama Bonsai Kai Ombú “Tree” by Pierre van Rensburg, which I enjoyed and found very interesting.

I hope you enjoyed this little bit of information on the beautiful and interesting Ombu tree which in fact is not a tree at all. I for one will enjoy twice as much when I am passing these trees in the knowledge of all its good uses.
And finally what I would like to know but could not readily find an answer to is whether the water stored inside the Ombu tree’s large trunk can be used in case of water shortage by cattle or people, or is it already juice in which case it is toxic? I would say, it is juice and it is toxic so it cannot be used. If anyone can shed more light on this please do.

FLASHBACK TO SOUTH INDIA

I would like to share some much treasured memories of my travels in South of India with you all.  Somehow being in Gozo reminds me of my time in India, not sure what it is that brings up the memories but there you are. A page out of my travel journal describes a trip that I made by taxi from Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu to Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh, it was a most interesting and beautiful journey.

We left very early in the morning while it was still dark, this meant that we would be able to watch the sun rise over the landscape.
I was simply glued to the window of the taxi, this was a large comfortable Indian taxi, in front the driver and our friend Ramesh and beside me the friend that I was sharing the journey with.
We travelled fast at first, there were many signs of people, of life starting to happen in the little hamlets which we passed, though I saw far less people than I had seen in Tiruvannamalai the last few weeks because of Deepam Festival.  I saw the sun rise over the farmers already working on the land, early and in the cool of the morning.

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The landscape started to change, the mountains became quite different in shape, edges more sharp and irregular.
The vegetation and the trees became very lush. In the hamlets along the roadside we passed women getting their children ready for school, we saw them carrying colourful plastic water containers on their head. We passed men herding large flocks of goats with silky coats.

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Many of the houses and huts, some of them circular in shape, were made of woven materials, making full use of locally produces building materials, the roofs becoming a bit higher as we got nearer to Andhra Pradesh, but we also passed many of the cement houses, they have flat roofs with railings and stairs leading up to the roof. Roofs are made good use of in India, these houses too were changing in appearance becoming more elaborate in their decorations, often with iron and stone trellises.

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Many farmsteads have chickens running around. These hamlets and roadside villages are centres of commercial activity, shops, teashops, workshops, craft shops were people were working at making the crafts such as basketry.

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Outside the villages and along the road there were also many brick making places where people would be making the bricks and they would all be piled up and then baked either in the sun or in a special system of piling them and firing them.
Lots of basket weaving places near to Vellore also. Vellore is a large town with lots of colourful shrines and temples along the road, their use of colour reminding me of the choice of colour used in Celtic art, very vivid and bright.
It was very hot in the taxi, we were drinking some water to keep going.
There was so much to see along the way. I noticed two high Termite heaps which really impressed me.
The journey now took us into a much more agricultural land, with lots of crops tended along the roadside, crops such as peanuts and rice.

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Wonderful trees also, and banana plantations. In Kanumolapati we came across a very ancient Hindu temple, but the closer we came to Tirupathi the fewer the Hindu temples became, I was now seeing the equally lovely and interesting minarets of the mosques, some of them very beautiful.

In Kadapa town we had a bit to eat at the AP Tourism restaurant which had very good value for money, lovely food and good restroom facilities.
This journey took 12 hours, we stopped off at Agaral about 20km outside Tirupathi at the Park Avenue Hotel Gardens to have some excellent Thai.

All my memories of India are very precious to me.