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Meet Delhi’s new green residents

Jan 02, 2024 04:57 AM IST

The lush Nehru Park got new inhabitants in October — 15 saplings that were brought by dignitaries participating in the G20 Summit

The 20cm-tall silver tree from South Korea, the only one in the Capital, is learning to survive Delhi, its weather, and the nosey creatures of Nehru Park.

Queen's Crepe-Myrtle from the United States of America at Nehru Park. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)
Queen's Crepe-Myrtle from the United States of America at Nehru Park. (Sanjeev Verma/HT Photo)

For the next two months, a double layered protection will shield it – a four-foot-long metallic cylindrical tree guard, and a five-foot cuboidal geo net contraption bolted shut from all sides with the help of a white net.

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The silver tree is not alone in the frisbee zone of the 75-acre park in the city. Another 14 saplings, each gifted by a dignitary who participated in the G20 summit on September 10, are its neighbours. They were planted on October 23 by the ambassadors of different countries and are being taken care of by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) now.

So, there is winterlinde from Germany, a fern tree from Brazil, real yellowwood from South Africa, a ghaf tree from the UAE, golden wattle from Australia, and frankincense from Oman, among others. A marble plaque at the bottom of each mini greenhouse has the name of the plant inscribed on it, along with its binomial name, and the country that gifted it.

In this zone at Nehru Park, apart from the 15 saplings (in closed tree houses) gifted by the countries that participated in G20 summit, are also saplings planted to represent organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Financial Stability Board, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, ASEAN and the World Bank.

The saplings gifted by the countries at G20 were first quarantined at the ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, in Delhi’s Pusa campus, and then planted in the park on October 23. An ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) official, who asked to not be named, said any sapling from a different climate is kept in an environment where factors such as moisture and air temperature are controlled, both manually and automatically. “The quarantine period depends from species to species, with some acclimatising in a few weeks, and others taking up to two years before they can be planted.”

An official from the NDMC’s horticulture department told HT that the saplings were planted using the same cocopeat that they were imported in. “No additional soil has been added, but after the ambassadors left, we insisted on making mini greenhouses to protect them. Nehru Park is full of dogs, squirrels, and children, and it would have been very difficult for us to protect these young trees from them,” said the official, who asked to not be named.

A second NDMC official said that a private company has been engaged to take care of the saplings. Their duties will include weeding, soil aeration, watering, and spraying pesticides and insecticides. “At this stage, these saplings are being made accustomed to the Delhi weather,” the official said.

Nehru Park, which is already home to 3,700 plants across 110 species of trees and over 100 types of shrubs, now boasts saplings whose natural habitat ranges from Mediterranean and desert, to tropical and subtropical environments.

And that’s why there’s trepidation. Environmentalists wonder if the saplings will grow at all. “Each tree requires a different climate and environment to thrive in. The challenge will be to replicate those micro-environments… (But) these are not native trees, and even after surviving, their growth will be stunted,” said Pradip Krishen, environmentalist, and author of Trees of Delhi.

“The olive tree from Italy, for instance, is from a Mediterranean climate, which means dry summers and winter rains suit it the most. The winterlinde from Germany and France’s sycamore/chinar will also fare badly in Delhi for similar reasons,” said Krishen.

NDMC is more hopeful. An official, who did not wish to be named, said, “Delhi’s weather witnesses extremes, from frost in winter to the loo in summer, but with proper care, these trees might survive.”

If these saplings do make it, Nehru Park might be able to replicate a British experiment of the 1920s, when several then-exotic trees were planted at the current site of Sundar Nursery. Those trees – arjun, neem, and vilayati kikar – are now an indelible part of Delhi, like it or not.

Krishen said that through experimentation, Delhi was able to avoid planting slow-growers, but it did adopt the vilayati kikar (prosopis juliflora), a tree that now dominates Delhi’s Ridge areas. “The tree, which is a Mexican species, was chosen as it was able to adapt well and grow quickly, but that shows that even if an exotic species is growing well, it is not necessarily a good idea to plant it. Vilayati kikar, for instance, shows allelopathic effects, which means that the tree releases compounds which make it difficult for other native species to grow nearby,” said Krishen.

The frankincense from Oman, whose aromatic resin is used to make perfumes, is the sole such tree in the city. Likewise, the yellowwood – gifted by South Africa – and Germany’s winterlinde, the deciduous tree with heart-shaped leaves are the lone specimens in Delhi.

In fact, across Delhi, there are at least 20 trees that are the sole specimens of their species, and are mostly planted at Sunder Nursery, Delhi University’ botany department, and at Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Pusa.

During a visit to Sunder Nursery, HT discovered that while some of these trees grew to magnificent heights — the African mahogany stands at over 100 feet — others, such as the coca tree, have had severely stunted growth.

“They did not do well in Delhi’s environment, and even those that did grow to their full height, took a lot of time. So, they were not planted again,” said Ratish Nanda, CEO of Aga Khan Trust for Culture that manages affairs at Sunder Nursery.

Over the years, Sunder Nursery has lost a few lone specimens to thunderstorms, said Nanda, including the city’s only pink cedar, native to moist forests in the western Ghats and northeast India. “It was destroyed during a storm many years ago,” said Nanda.

Krishen said Sunder Nursery is a great example of foreign species that did not adapt to Delhi’s climate. “Several such species that survived all these years are also no longer there as they were lost over time. For a tree to sustain itself, it needs a climate as close to what it is used to in its native country,” he said.

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