At the northwest corner of Dhaka's Baldah Garden, all the lily ponds, except one, were left seemingly uncared for. For ordinary visitors, there was nothing attractive about the stagnant pond water.
But botanists consider the tiny water reservoirs, including the concrete pond walls hosting algae and other microbes, and the surrounding earth, precious for their research work.
Take an example. Euglenamorpha, a green parasite, inhabits the rectum of frog tadpoles. Outside the host, Euglenamorpha may present on a wet surface, like the wall of a concrete pond.
While researching on phytoplankton at Baldah Garden 16 years ago, a young botany teacher of Dhaka University, Mohammad Almujaddade Alfasane, found the parasite on some soft corals growing on the wall of a water tank inside the garden.
The finding in Bangladesh was the fourth ever in the world, after the first three in the United States where it was first recorded by the University of Pennsylvania's professor emeritus David Henry Wenrich in 1924.
Talking about the importance of the Baldah Garden, Professor Almujaddade recently told The Business Standard (TBS) that the garden–a green park to many joggers and ordinary visitors–is a crucial research ground for local botanists, botany and zoology students and naturists.
"Researchers can get an idea about how local and exotic species available in the garden interact. Moreover, many living organisms are microscopic. The Baldah Garden offers a huge field for studying such microbes," the botany teacher said.
Like Almujaddade, some other botanists from the reputed universities in Dhaka find Baldah Garden–the oldest garden in East Bengal–as one among a few existing 'ex-situ' or 'off-site conservation' areas for many local and exotic plants in Bangladesh.
According to the forest department–the curating authority of Baldah Garden–the 3.38acre-garden in Dhaka's Wari area has a huge collection of exotic and local species, estimated at around 18,000 in number. Among the plants, some are rare species that cannot be found anywhere else in Bangladesh or even in this subcontinent except the garden, botanists say.
Jahangirnagar University's botany teacher Professor M Mahfuzur Rahman, who was involved in a floral survey at National Botanical Garden and Baldah Garden under the forest department's conservation project said that Baldah Garden hosts some of the rarest species like the Century plant (Agave Americana), African tulip (Spathodea campanulata), Raj Ashok (Sarica indica), Amazon lily (Eucharis Grandiflora), Golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), Blue Lily (Nymphaea caerulea), Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) and some cactuses and orchids.
"More studies on the garden can lead to the restoration of many threatened floral species," Mahfuzur said.
Botanists often term the Baldah Garden a live museum of some rare, threatened and nearly extinct floral species. Not only that, the garden houses a wide variety of butterflies, key pollinators in the ecosystem.
A recent study titled 'Butterfly diversity in the three selected areas in Dhaka' found the presence of butterfly families, Pieridae, Lycaenidae, Nymphalidae, Papilionidae, Hesperiidae and Danaidae at the Baldah Garden.
The enrichment of the century-old garden bed has a long history as the soil becomes fertile from the decomposition of fallen dried leaves over the years. Founded by the Baldah Estate landlord Narendra Narayan Roy Chaudhury in 1909, the Baldah Garden was initially formed on the south side of Nawab Street. Narendra, a naturalist, philanthropist and poet, took more than 30 years to build the garden. The landlord imported many floral species from around 52 countries and planted them in the garden.
Divided by the Nawab Street, two parts of the garden were named in Greek 'Psyche' and 'Cybele'. Psyche stands for 'soul' while Cybele is the Mother Goddess of Nature in Greek mythology.
A square-shaped pond named 'Shangkhanidhi' was dug inside Cybele. In 1926, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited the garden and was stationed briefly at the Joy House-a raised cottage facing the 'Shangkhanidhi'.
Mesmerised by the beauty of the Camellia flower (Camellia japonica), Tagore wrote, "Camellia. Its heart is not to be won easily, is it?" (excerpt from the poem Camellia). He appreciated the creative gardening so highly that he told Narendra that what he had created in his life through writing was being done through plantation by the gardener.
The creative development of the private garden continued till 1940. However, the assassination of Narendra's beloved son Nripendra Narayan Roy Chaudhury in that very year traumatised the garden owner and eventually, the garden became neglected by its prime caretaker.
After Narendra died in 1943, the Calcutta (now Kolkata) High Court handed the responsibility of the garden over to a trust and appointed Amritalal Acharya as the garden's curator. Later in 1951, the Pakistan government designated the Dacca (now Dhaka) District Administration as the garden's 'Court of Wards'. The forest department finally brought the property under its jurisdiction in 1962 for better gardening.
How has the forest department been taking care of the garden in the last 58 years? Unfortunately, we found the garden in a shabby state.
The base of some of the trees and shrubs remain covered by dry leaves and plastic waste like food packages and bottles. Most of its age-old trees are looking fragile.
High-rise residential buildings surround the garden from all sides in such a way that the plants can hardly access air and sunlight-the two crucial elements for photosynthesis. Even the famous 'sun dial' set by Narendra remains merely a showpiece due to poor daylight.
A century-old Buddha Narikel (Pterygota alata), however, still stands 60-foot high in the middle of the Cybele part as a giant memorabilia.
The forest department looks after the Baldah Garden as a satellite unit of the National Botanical Gardens (NBG). The NBG director Md Zahidur Rahman Miah recently told TBS, "Garbage management in the Baldah Garden is a big challenge. We have only eight staffers: one forester, one forest guard and six gardeners, at the garden. Visitors' awareness about cleanliness is a must to protect the greeneries."
According to forester Ohidul Islam, in charge of the Baldah Garden, the green open space hosts 250 to 400 visitors a day. Since 2000, the garden gate has been leased to private entities for entry fee collection. In the last fiscal year, the garden fetched Tk 23 lakh lease money as revenue. Two fiscal years ago, the amount was Tk 38 lakh.
A 2018 study led by one of Jagannath University's botany teachers, associate professor Shahrear Ahmad, found that visitors had no idea about how to interact with the plants while they visit the Baldah Garden. Visitors mostly use the open space for recreation, often leaving their imprints on plants, tearing down stems, branches, and split leaves, and throwing garbage at will.
Jagannath University's botany department chairman Professor Kazi Shakhawath Hossain feels very disappointed seeing the present state of the Baldah Garden. A couple of years ago, the botanist tried to study the interaction between fungi and trees in the garden but failed to collect the expected findings as the garden bed was earth-filled, under a renovation project. He will resume the study after five years if the new earth settles down.
Before joining his teaching profession, Shakhawath worked as a research officer at the Baldah Garden from 1994-1998.
At that time, the garden was not running on a lease basis. The garden's conservation was more important than revenue collection. Teenagers donning school uniforms, and vagabonds were not allowed to visit the garden.
"At present, the survival of the garden is at stake as a result of over-tourism. For the sake of scientific research, every local botanist should demand protection and the proper conservation of the Baldah Garden," Shakhawath said.
When enquired, NBG director Md Zahidur Rahman Miah informed that a plan is being drawn to create a replica of Baldah Garden at a suitable place. "We can clone the nearly threatened species. Saplings of rare plants can be bred by grafting their branches and tissue culture," he concluded.