Indigenous delight

Jamile Naqi on the timeless value of the Jamun tree and its flavourful fruit

Indigenous delight
My mother built me a house in the Lahore Cantonment which has a forty-year-old jamun tree.

The tall jamun towers over the front lawn.  Under its leafy shade, grass cannot grow, causing a tropical lawn to emerge: weeds greening the ground, a number of bushes and a couple of palm trees.

Come June, the children of the neighbourhood run in and out of the driveway, picking jamuns, shaking branches with poles to get the fruit: jamun branches break easily so children know better than to climb on them.  The fruit brings joy and blessings (barkat) to the house.

The shedding jamun, in February and March, leaves the driveway overrun with leaves.  The breeze cavorts with crunchy yellow leaves. The gardener stoically sweeps them away each day only to find, next morning, the driveway once again softly melancholy in a garb of yellow. And I find myself humming a melody whose words I’ve mostly forgotten.

In the 1970s and 80s, many homes had a bouquet of fruit trees: mango, jamun and mulberry being the most popular. On summer afternoons, we sneaked out while our parents napped, to outwit the gardeners, and make off with mangoes and jamuns. When chased by enraged gardeners, spilling with laughter, we enjoyed our spoils even more. Forbidden fruit is sweet!

The tree is native to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Jamun is known by many sweet names such as jumbul, jambolan, jambolao and jummu.

It is an evergreen tree: new leaves come out as soon as the old ones are shed.  It was once grown as an avenue tree because of its ornamental shape and as a windbreaker. Its many-branched densely leafy crown offers a shady sigh of relief in the sweltering summer heat of the Punjab.
The jamun is now perceived to be 'too desi' - not fashionable - and carries less appeal for locals

Jamun is a fast-growing hardy fruit tree, which starts giving fruit in four to five years. In order to plant a jamun, you bury seed (guthli) in the soil and before long a jamun tree sprouts forth. It can survive adverse climatic conditions and grows on many types of soil. Jamun roots go deep into the ground; it can withstand storms. Even when water is scarce the tree is not under any stress as its roots drink from the deeper layers of soil. It does not require special upkeep; the wood is dry and repels fungus.

As per an earlier practice, when a young jamun tree was about to give fruit for first time, notches were made with an axe by a pre-adolescent boy:  it is believed this makes the jamun fruit sweet.

Hindu tradition states that Rama subsisted on the jamun fruit in the forest for 14 years during his exile from Ayodhya. Because of this, many Hindus, especially in Gujarat, regard it as the ‘fruit of the gods’.

Jamuns ripen between June and July with the onset of rain. It has a short season and fruit must ripen on the tree. Deep purple jamuns amidst green leaves are indeed a most picturesque sight.

According to a myth, Lord Megha, god of the clouds, is said to have descended onto Earth in the form of a jamun, which is why the colour of the fruit is as dark and stormy as the fierce monsoon clouds.

Jamun is eaten fresh off the tree. It is a delicate fruit and does not keep. It is juicy sweet with an acidic tang and is eaten with a sprinkle of salt. The mouth and tongue are stained blue when the purple jamun is eaten. It is an acquired taste.

Whilst there are three varieties of Jamun, the most common is Desi Jamun,which has a big seed. Rai Jamun has a small seed. The Surai Jamun is shaped like a goblet.

A Rai Jamun tree

Though jamun fetches a good price, it is not grown as an orchard tree. The demand for jamun has decreased with the availability of new exotic fruits in the market. It is perceived to be ‘too desi’ - not fashionable - and carries less appeal for locals.

I remember buying jamuns along Dhani Ram street in Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar. Vendors placed their trays along a felled tree that lay there, made  small cone-shaped cups from newspapers, which they filled with jamuns and moved from car to car selling the fruit. Children and grownups alike enjoyed the snack, taking a breather from their shopping chores.

The wood of the tree is hard, dry and white. It is strong and water-resistant and is used for making the wheels of bullock carts. It is also ideal for structures that must remain underwater, like well curbs.

A gardener in the Lawrence Gardens tells me:

“The Garden has more than thirty jamun trees. In season, the trees are given on tender. Jamuns are sold at three points in the garden and the freshest jamuns in Lahore can be obtained from the Lawrence vendors.

I am saddened that these days jamun trees are not planted. The tree is ideal owing to its fast growth rate; it also helps purify the environment. Unlike the peepul and other trees, it is healthy to sleep under the jamun.

You’ll be interested to know that the silkworm which makes Tussar silk, of which saris are made, is hosted on this tree.”

Jamun is an important summer fruit that has many health benefits. One of the best medicinal benefits of jamun is its anti-diabetic properties. Jamun helps convert starch into energy and keeps blood sugar levels in check. The fruit is good for the digestive system because of its cooling properties. It is also a good source of vitamin C and iron.

Traditional medicine uses the seeds, leaves and bark of the tree to treat various ailments including high blood pressure.

The two summer fruits jamun and mango offset each other. Mango raises sugar and fructose levels in the blood, and jamun aids in bringing them down. Nature provides its own antidote!

Unaware of its benefits, homeowners have cut jamun trees from their lawns, complaining that the copiously shed leaves make a mess and that the fruit stains the ground purple.

We need to educate ourselves about our indigenous trees and the value they add to our lives.