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Native trees, alien trees

Several empires have left their architectural imprint on the city of Delhi. Both Mughal and British rulers took great pride in planting trees alongside their architectural masterpieces. Emperor Akbar ordered that all avenues and arterial roads be covered with the graceful sheesham tree. The British were tree-lovers too, and British architect Edwin Lutyens (who designed Rashtrapati Bhawan) went to great pains to ensure that all the main avenues in New Delhi were lined with handpicked species.

The British chose an empty plain to the south of the walled city to lay out their imperial capital city in 1911, and the stately Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament House and the bungalows of New Delhi endure. So too do the tree-lined avenues and boulevards of Sir Edwin Lutyens' Delhi.

These and many other details are revealed in filmmaker-turned-writer Pradip Krishen's A Field Guide to Delhi's Trees, recently published by Dorling Kindersley. This fat little field guide, illustrated with 1,100 photographs, also taken by the author, took six years to complete. In this interview Pradip talks about the lovely unending puzzle of trees.


How did you get started writing a book on Delhi's trees?

I was introduced to trees by a forester friend who used to take me for 'Latin walks' in the jungles of Pachmarhi. It began to seem like a lovely unending puzzle, trying to figure out tree species from the things that were in evidence during particular seasons. Gradually I learned to decode the esoteric vocabulary that botanists use. And as I became more and more familiar with forest trees, I suddenly said to myself one day, in 1998 I think it was, 'wouldn't it be lovely to puzzle out all the trees in the city where I live? Not just the common ones, but every single one?' It became like a giant puzzle, and it's led me to explore the city in ways I would never have dreamed of. In time, I began leading tree walks on Sunday mornings, and eventually the idea of doing this book happened.

Was it hard to identify Delhi's trees?

The difficulty was posed, mostly, by certain kinds of exotic trees. Not the common ones. Not the gulmohur or jacaranda, but the ones that didn't work out for one reason or another. In Sundar Nursery, for example, I came across some strange trees that no one in the nursery seemed to know much about. I gradually came to realise that some time in the 1940s or 1950s, someone -- Percy Lancaster, perhaps -- had planted these trees here as an experiment. Those that did well got 'promoted' to becoming street trees or park trees. If they 'failed' in some significant way -- if they remained stunted, for example, or if their flowering was poor and disappointing -- then they were consigned to the rubbish bin, so to speak, since no one took any more notice of them. Yet they continued to grow there, in one corner of Sundar Nursery, forgotten even by the nursery that had originally planted them. Now the problem is -- if you come across a singular exotic tree, where do you begin to look it up? In the flora of Australia? Or South Africa? You see, it can become quite a tricky problem.

So where did you go to identify these trees? Where did you do your research?

The FRI Herbarium at Dehra Dun was useful. But I had to rely on intuition and guesswork and, ultimately, a great deal of luck, especially for the discarded exotics. I discovered one of the trees quite by accident in the Sydney Botanical Garden three years after I first wondered what it was. It turned out to be a carrotwood tree from southeast coastal Australia.

I identified another one only after I had sent specimens of its wood to three laboratories. It wasn't at all easy. But it was part of the puzzle!

Have you looked at how the new capital city was planted in the early 20th century?

I found a lot of interesting information at the National Archives. Foresters and 'arboriculturists' and sometimes even civil servants argued fiercely about what the most appropriate trees were for New Delhi. The Imperial Capital Committee, of which Sir Edwin Lutyens was a member, decided to plant only 13 species of trees along the avenues of New Delhi. The scheme got a bit muddied later on, and the 13 species expanded to something like 16 or 17. But that's still a surprisingly small number for such a large network of avenues. And when you start asking questions about why they chose those particular 13 trees, there are some fascinating answers.

The members of the committee all had a bias against planting deciduous trees. These are trees that drop their leaves during Delhi's long dry season. For this reason, they chose only evergreen species. Or trees that they thought were evergreen. The trouble is that a tree that remains evergreen in a moist climate will change character and drop its leaves in a dry climate. This is the tree's way of coping with prolonged drought, an entirely appropriate ecological response, because trees transpire moisture through their leaves. Trees need to 'shut down' to deal with adverse conditions, and dropping leaves is the easiest way. But the planners did not count on this, and it upset all their plans. In the end, the climate defeated them and all, or most, of the trees behaved, and still behave, deciduously. The British made an elementary ecological miscalculation!

Does Delhi have many indigenous tree varieties?

In my book I describe some 260 species in all. This includes every single kind of tree that I have come across in this city, even a few that are represented by solitary specimens in private collections. Of the species strictly native to the Delhi region, I have counted 42. This is not a stable figure because at least three or four species that are known to be native have disappeared within living memory. But it has been fascinating puzzling out the native trees. The Ridge and the semi-wild outskirts of the city are, of course, interesting places to scout around for wild trees. But there are still places inside the city that protect -- inadvertently, sometimes -- tiny swathes of original forest. Even the Delhi Golf Course, in between the fairways, houses little galleries of native forest, and they can teach you a whole lot about the native flora or what's left of it.

Have many of Delhi's trees been brought from outside the country?

Yes, sometimes with disastrous effect. The most common tree in Delhi today, the most dominant, is a tree from central America that was introduced around 1915 in order to afforest the central ridge forests. This is the mesquite (Prosopis juliflora). It is called the 'vilaiti keekar' or 'angrezi keekar' in Delhi, or sometimes just 'keekar', though this is properly the name of the babool, which is quite a different species. The mesquite was one of about seven or eight species that were planted on the Ridge, but only the mesquite was superbly adapted to deal with conditions in Delhi, and it flourished, often at the expense of other species, even native tree species. Slowly but inexorably, over the years, the mesquite has become the most common tree in the city. If one stands on an eminence in Mehrauli and looks down, all one will see is a sea of mesquites. It is very saddening, because this aggressive and invasive tree succeeds at the expense of other trees.

Is there enough historical information about what trees were growing where in the 19th century?

Not really. But there are interesting clues. For example, I came across a logbook of a tent-pegging club from the 1870s. 'Tent-pegging', of course, is just a euphemism for pig-sticking, which was a popular blood-sport that British soldiers indulged in at the time. They would meet every Sunday and go looking for wild boar. And where were the boars to be found? Only in patches of riverine forest. So the record of where they hunted each Sunday became, for me, a fascinating point-locator of where patches of forest lay in that era. Burari, in the north; Patparganj, across the river. And so on.

Has Delhi changed a lot in terms of its trees, in the last two or three centuries?

It's been fascinating trying to piece together a sense of what happened to Delhi's trees. We know something about Shah Jahan's time in the 17th century, and the gardens and patrician baghs that were built in his reign. Not many people know that the Mughal emperor made special efforts to encourage the planting of trees and orchards on the outskirts of the walled city. He offered special rent-free tenures to proprietors who planted trees in an area called Sadhaura Kalan, northwest of Mori Gate. These orchards and gardens, some 1,000 acres of them, were still standing at the beginning of the 20th century, but have been steadily nibbled away since then. The city also lost a great deal of its trees after the 1857 uprising. The British occupied the emperor's palace -- the Red Fort -- and cut down all trees standing within 500 yards of the ramparts of the fort so they would have a clear line of fire in case the fort was stormed by rebels.

In 1912, when Lord Harding was making his way from the Old Delhi railway station, a bomb was thrown at him in Chandni Chowk, leaving him injured. That resulted in the chopping down of all the trees in Chandni Chowk.

Delhites are afraid that the city is in danger of losing its green cover.

One of the biggest problems facing the city is the sharp drop in groundwater. Four years ago, a huge storm lashed the city, resulting in us losing over 2,000 trees. Many of the trees we lost were neem trees. The neem has a dense canopy that catches the wind. Its main roots go down very deep to catch water. When the tree fails to find water it begins to grow surface roots. Many of these neems did not have tap roots, which means that they were losing their connection with underground water. That can prove very dangerous.

What do you feel about the future of Delhi's trees? Will we be able to remain a garden city?

Our aquifers are depleting, the water table is plummeting, and the river Yamuna is little more than a sewer. Unless we do something drastic to reverse this situation, every tree is threatened. We need to rethink the species that are planted in Delhi. We simply cannot afford to plant trees that are thirsty and require huge quantities of water to survive. Instead, we need to think in terms of native trees.

-- Rashme Sehgal

InfoChange News & Features, August 2006

 
 
   
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