HE INDIAN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE
campus in Bangalore, India, is a rare green
lung within an increasingly polluted and
paved-over metropolis. In the two decades
that I have often sought refuge here, I have
seldom had a good excuse to be on campus.
I’ve never been enrolled as a student here, though I generally
tell questioning security guards otherwise. If I were to give them
an honest answer, it would probably be, “I’m here for the trees.”
Much of this century-old campus lies within the shade of giant avenue trees, giving the impression that the research institute is in fact a forest. Jacaranda, native to Central and South
America, spills violet flowers across roadways filled with bicyclists. Tabebuia, a tree from Central America, comes alive with
yellow or pink when it blooms. Scarlet in the treetops could be
gulmohar, a red-flowered tree native to Madagascar, or the fiery
blossoms of an African tulip tree. The impression of a forest is
heightened by the half-wild plots of land across the institute,
where many shrubs that originated in the Americas now grow:
parthenium with delicate white buds, mimosa with shrinking
leaves, lantana with multicolored florets.
The institute once played host to a lecture by noted Indian
environmentalist and nature writer Madhaviah Krishnan. At a
reception during his visit, Krishnan was asked what he thought
of the campus. It was February, and the roadways were covered
in yellow tabebuia blossoms.
“Disgraceful,” Krishnan said. “You should uproot all those
foreign trees and plant some of our own.”
Krishnan was many things: naturalist, photographer, artist,
intellectual, Tamil-literature enthusiast. Along with other en-
vironmentalists in the 1970s, he helped convince the Indian
government and public alike that India’s natural wealth was
a matter of national heritage and thus worth legal protection.
From the 1960s until his death in 1996 he wrote with sensitiv-
ity and passion about India’s vanishing wild places. Like many
who held the nation’s wilderness in high regard, Krishnan had
nothing but vitriol for so-called “exotics” and “invasive species,”
which he believed to be as threatening to the nation’s integrity as
the scars of colonialism itself.
Krishnan’s eloquence against exotics was not limited to trees.
He reserved more damning words for the subject of lantana,
an ornamental shrub turned invasive that has expanded across
many disturbed landscapes in India and the Global South. In a
1966 Times of India article, Krishnan went back and forth between comparing lantana to a disease and a colonizing power.
“No plant has probably spread so far and wide in so short a time
as the Tropical American lantana, which conquered India more
completely and swiftly than any invader known to history,” he
wrote. The shrub had accomplished an “epidemic conquest of
India,” in Krishnan’s estimation, thanks to the birds and beasts
that ate its berries and consequently spread its seeds.
His words in 1966 might have helped galvanize then-ongoing
e=orts to eradicate lantana, e=orts already fifty years old. Those
attempts were as ine=ective in 1966, however, as they were in
the 1910s, or today. Lantana is tenacious. Since Krishnan’s death,
it has continued to spread.