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Nursing the Banj


We, the Government

By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

Jot Singh, a friend of many years and a former, high-achieving, Chairman of our City Board, introduced us to the mystique of the Banj. Driving back from a meeting of our Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, he stopped the car, vanished into the woods with two glasses, returned with them full and said “Water from springs at the roots of a banj forest. It’s very good!” He was right: the water was cold, clear and, strangely, very sustaining.
That was our introduction to the mystique of the Himalayan Oak (Quercus leucotrichophora).
Childhood memories recall itinerant Dotiyal Charcoal-sellers offering Banj charcoal, (“Koila saiye? Koila!”), for our winter bokharis, at a much higher price than the inferior Kokat variety. Kokat is any charcoal not made from Banj wood! Also, a holler away from our own Oak forest, there was a lime kiln, built like a small stone tower. Into this, the owners packed banj wood and limestone rocks and fired the kiln to burn slowly over days. The rocks crumbled into strong, unslaked, lime. This, when mixed with the fine blue bujree-gravel of our mountains, became the unyielding mortar of our houses. It, reputedly, strengthened with age, putting to shame the effete cement that has now ousted it!
So, our respect for our Banj trees morphed into awe and matured into the reverence we now have. We have not tried planting turmeric and ginger in our Banj forest though these spices would, apparently, thrive there. Our oak wood has, however, protected us from monsoon storms, lightening strikes and soil-leaching deluges. It absorbs the carbon-dioxide we exhale and replaces it with moisturised oxygen like an enormous green battery of solar-powered air-conditioner-purifiers. Every year its fallen leaves enrich our soil and provide natural, environmentally compatible, leaf-mould for our garden. And when the occasional earth tremor shivers our seismically active mountains, the deep roots and supple-fibrous banj trunks become shock absorbers, trembling and dispersing the impact of the quake into the atmosphere. In fact, our Banj forests are responsible for making our Garhwal Himalayas human-friendly.
But in spite of its resilience, the Banj is a reluctant breeder. The yellow-green filaments of its catkins carry its male cells, while its tiny female cells cling like minuscule globules to its leaves. When the wind, or insects, brings these two together, a little acorn is created. This neat nut is, however, too tough for its fertilized cell to break through to life- sustaining light and air. It has to be scarified, damaged or cracked. This is done by small mammals like Flying Squirrels or birds like Jays. Quite naturally, these creatures, like us, prefer easy pickings to hard work so they would much rather eat sweet, soft, berries rather than hard nuts! And even if they do choose the rather acrid acorns, and crack their hard shells, the acorn must fall on cool, damp loam after which it will take six to eight weeks to send down its roots to get a tight hold of the soil, before thrusting its first shoot out of the ground.
We, however, have discovered a tree in our forest which could help the growth of Banj. Our single Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus takil) has, with some tender, loving, care, given rise to many progeny. This palm is the only one of its kind that can tolerate snow. Its large leaves also help prevent runoff, conserve and cool loam on the forest floor, keep it damp, enrich our soil, recharge the underground aquifers and create ideal conditions for the nurturing of the Banj. Moreover, the Windmill Palm thrives under cover of our Himalayan Oak. Finally, this palm produces large quantities of soft fruit every year which attract fauna, who then move on to neighbouring acorns. Palm berries, consequently, play a significant role in propagating the Banj. These qualities make Trachycarpus takil ideal for planting on our erosion-endangered limestone slopes.
We, the Government, should introduce it as a nurse-tree to nurture the Himalayan Oak, when restoring green cover on our denuded hillsides in Garhwal.
Finally, if a row of these trees was planted on the hill-side of our Mall then Mussoorie would be the only hill-station with a Palm Mall. Such uniqueness sells a tourist destination.