by Afsaana Rashid
- Indian-administered Kashmir -
Officials at the Kashmir Department of Agriculture are putting in serious effort to preserve a male Ginkgo biloba tree, a species that has almost vanished from South Asia.
The Ginkgo, South Asia’s oldest tree, is located in Lal Mandi’s Kitchen Garden of the Agriculture Department. The species is believed to be 270 million years old, as old as the dinosaurs, while the tree itself is more than 200 years old and is eight feet. The life span of Ginkgo biloba can be as long as 3000–4000 years or even more.Fida Ali Alamgeer, the Floriculture Development Extension Officer, claims that the Ginkgo is alive and growing, though some experts in the field think otherwise. As evidence, he says that projections of the tree contain Parenchymatous cells, which help in its growth. He says the absence of foliage at the apex gives the false impression that tree is dead.
As the park is located in a low lying area, rain and snow accumulate into a pool of water. Fida says that the Ginkgo grows best in acidic soil, while stagnant water changes the pH value of soil from acidic to alkaline, resulting in slower growth.
Since the stagnant water in the park has retarded the tree’s growth, a two-feet-high mound of earth was formed around the tree. Dense suckers have sprouted on the raised mound, and experts hope to plant them next year under suitable climate conditions.
An official pleading anonymity says that some of the branches have been chopped poorly, leaving the stump vulnerable to diseases and pests. "You can find holes in the tree; it is because the branches have been chopped wrongly. Branches must be axed completely."
The official says that it is imperative to seek an expert opinion before cutting such a heritage tree, but that was not done in this case. As a result, the official says a portion of the tree’s bark fell off six years ago.
He says that mud was applied over the exposed portions of the trunk, which measures seven feet, eight inches in diameter, but that it fell off upon drying. He says that kaesir (a mixture of mud and finely chopped dried grass) would be applied over it.
The official says that use of kaesir might increase the growth of fresh bark, but if not, eventually the trunk will lose its bark entirely and wither away. He suggests scientific pruning of branches, chemical treatment of roots, and early identification of decay as remedial measures to preserve the tree. He says that if these measures don't work, they will opt for grafting.
Fida Ali Alamgeer says that the prevailing agro-climatic conditions of the Kashmir valley are suitable for the Gingko growing at Lal Mandi.
According to Fida, officials have also discovered a 60-year-old female Gingko tree in the private garden of a former officer of the Agriculture Department at Rajbagh, some kilometers away from the park.The female tree is a rarity, says Fida. “They are not liked by people the world over because…once its [inedible] plum-like fruit ripens, falls on the ground and decays, it gives off a bad odor.”
Determining the gender of a Ginkgo tree is difficult, says Fida, because the trees do not mature and bear fruit for 35–40 years. “Who can wait that long? [We were lucky to have] discovered a [mature] female tree. It will make our work easier,” he says.
Once Fida and his team started their survey of the Gingko in Lal Mandi, they were surprised to find that no literature was available in India since the tree was not found there and no research had been done even in Kashmir. Consequently, the team applied abroad for literature and compared the written characteristics of the Ginkgo with the tree at Lal Mandi. “It is that literature that helped us identify the female tree,” says Fida.
After collecting fruits from the female tree, Fida and his team removed the pulp and did stratification to break the tree’s dormancy. Consequently, its cover ruptured and started germinating. Simultaneously, the team put stem cuttings of both genders in an underground pit before treating them chemically.
According to Gurcharan Singh, an environmentalist and Mass Media Officer for the Directorate of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing, the Ginkgo biloba is the only tree in the coniferous family with broad leaves. “Unlike others in the family it does not have needle-shaped leaves. Ginkgo biloba is an ancient tree and the oldest one you can find at Lal Mandi. There are a few more Ginkgo bilobas here that have been propagated via tissue-culture.”
Ginkgo seems to be unusually resilient; four trees in Japan (where they are known as silver apricots) survived the 1945 atomic bomb explosions in Hiroshima. Though the trees are charred, they are "alive and in good health, as the tree is very resistant to radioactive radiation,” says Fida.
The Ginkgo tree has inspired its own mythology in some South Asian countries. As Fida points out, “Koreans hold the tree in great reverence - expecting mothers used to come to the tree to worship God, wishing to be blessed with a male-child. It is said their wishes were answered.” Another legend describes how “a man in Korea approached the tree with a saw in his hand intending to cut it. As he came nearer, the clear sky suddenly turned grey. Clouds suddenly darkened, thunder rattled and blood started dripping from the spot of tree where it was hit.”
Fida says that the literature his team reviewed bears testimony to the fact that Gingko trees have been heard to make strange sounds or indicate when an event of national importance is about to take place. When Korea’s King Kojong passed away, Fida says a large number of branches wilted as if a knife had cut them down. The tree is also said to have made strange sounds for two months when Korea was liberated from Japan.
The Gingko has proven medicinal as well as ornamental value. Fida says it is helpful in increasing circulation, protecting against oxidative cell damage from cancer-causing free radicals, improves memory and blocks the effect of platelets and unwanted blood clots.
However, too much Gingko can be fatal, he warns. “If 4-5 seeds are consumed, it can result in unconsciousness, followed by convulsions and ultimately death. However, pyridoxine can be given to prevent poisoning,” says Fida.
Though Gingko supplements are widely available in western countries, they are not easily accessible in Kashmir. Many people in the Kashmir valley use traditional forms of medicine, so if the Gingko becomes extinct in the region, Kashmir will most likely lose the health benefits associated with its use. Since officials here claim that Kashmir’s Ginkgo is one of just a few trees found in the entire Indian sub-continent, it becomes all the more important that the Ginkgo in Lal Mandi is preserved.
Head of Field Functionaries of the Floriculture Development Extension Office, Manzoor Ahmad says that a link between past and present has been discovered and “the biggest achievement is to protect it.”
With people like Fida Ali at the helm, hopes are high that the world’s oldest tree species will survive in Kashmir.
About the Author
Afsaana Rashid is a journalist living in Indian-administered Kashmir and the author of Waiting for Justice: Widows and Half Widows, a book that addresses the plight of many women whose husbands have been subjected to enforced disappearance or custodial killings over the past two decades of Kashmir's conflict. Currently a senior correspondent with Kashmir’s Daily Etalaat, she has also been a correspondent for The Kashmir Times and Kashmir Images. She received her Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir.
In 2005, Afsaana was awarded a fellowship for her work on the impact of conflict on the subsistence livelihoods of marginalized communities in Kashmir by Action Aid India. The following year, she was awarded a Sanjoy Ghose Media fellowship for her work in conflict areas. She also received a UN Population Fund-Laadli Media Award for best reporting in adverse conditions on gender issues in April 2008.
Devoted to covering human rights violations, Afsaana hopes to give a voice to the voiceless.