The Himalayan evergreen oak is an endangered tree in Northern India. The reasons for its decline are varied, the population explosion and probably global warming and deforestation all play a role in its decline. Another reason is the widespread aggressive pruning of the oaks for use as cattle feed and firewood by the local population. This results in the oaks not bearing any acorns hence there are no new trees coming up in these areas. In addition, whenever a landslide occurs (quite frequent in the monsoons) or an oak falls due to erosion washing away the soil from most of its roots, it is seen as a windfall and is quickly chopped up and consumed or sold as firewood . Nothing  however is planted to replace it.  This oak is a slow grower and takes decades to grow into a tall tree.

The Himalayanj Oak's leaves and acorns
The Himalayan Oak’s leaves and acorns

Botanical name : Quercus leucotrichophora (Some references also mention it as Quercus incana, but pictures of the leaves do not match on the web, Quercus incana could very well be the Bluejack Oak)

Common name  : Banj Oak, Himalayan White Oak

Local Names      : Hindi Banj, Himachali: Vari,                                   Ring, Kumaoni: Phanal

Description        : The trees that I’ve seen are usually twisted and have wiry branches. However I have also seen trees reputed to be 50+ years old whose    trunks are thick and tall.

Leaf                       : Stiff leathery dull green leaves with a greenish-white underside and sharp teeth                                   on the edges.

Flower                      : The flowers come out in Catkins (Slim cylindrical flower clusters)

Fruit                     : The acorns are said to contain a peanut like core when broken, and seem to be                                 eaten by Gray Langurs and Macaques

Uses                     : The wood is very hard and strong but does not seem to be used for furniture at least here in the Garhwal hills -probably because of its other uses, the trees are over-pruned and shapeless hence making it useless for furniture. Its leaves are said to be very nutritious and are therefore favored as cattle feed for stall fed cattle. Its leaves are also scattered over the floor under the cattle along with chopped hay (which I observed in Kathwar, Himachal Pradesh), where it is trod by the

One of the many over exploited Banj Oak trees on the way to Thatyur in the Tehri Garhwal district
One of the many over exploited Banj Oak trees on the way to Thatyur in the Tehri Garhwal district

cattle over a period of time and gets mixed  with their urine and dung. This mixture is at certain intervals swept out and heaped outside the cattle shed to be used as manure to be spread out over the fields after planting crops (wheat, corn and ginger in this case). The wood is used as firewood as it burns very hot and being a hard wood, the coals last long. It is also used to make charcoal. Its leaves and wood are known to burn when even when they are green, provided they are added to a fire which is already burning well. The leaves are used by the Garhwali people to stuff goats prior to sewing them up and roasting them. The steam generated by the leaves helps in cooking the goat from the inside. Both in Kathwar and Mussoorie, the trees seem to grow only at higher altitudes (reputedly in the 1400-2300 m range) (In Mussoorie upwards of Landour Cantonment). I’ve sometimes chewed on the leaves when hungry on a walk, so the leaves are not poisonous, but I’m unsure whether it is used as food.  It leaves a not too bad after taste in the mouth -something like Kadipattta (Curry leaves –Murraya koenigii ) but contains none of the aromatic smell of Murray koenigii. The leaves have sharp serrations though, and are thick, papery and tough. The acorns are edible, I remember Ray Mears in one of his DVD’s using an aboriginal method for leaching out its bitter tannins by putting the ground up acorns into a bag and leaving it in a stream to remove the bitterness and make it palatable.

I got first hand experience of watching heavily pruned oaks on the way to Thatyur, a village in Tehri Garhwal district . Between Dhanaulti and  Thatyur, for over two kilometers or more, -every tree had been so heavily pruned for cattle feed and firewood that they were hardly recognizable any more. There was not a single tree either bearing acorns or bearing more than a

Catkins on the banj oak in the last week of April in Landour, Mussoorie
Catkins on the banj oak in the last week of April in Landour, Mussoorie

basketful of leaves this too in the monsoon. It was sad to see such a useful resource being over exploited. Unfortunately the Eco task force too seems to prefer to plant the fast growing Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii) to the slow growing endearing Banj oak. Soon we may not have these beauties around us.

25th April 2011

On a camping trip to Yamuna bridge a couple of hours drive from Mussoorie, I got a chance to observe the banj oak at a  different time of year. The oaks were adorned with cylindrical clusters of flowers  (catkins). The pollen from these is suspected to be a cause for allergies in some people.

When I used my new binoculars to get a close up view of the catkins I was amazed when I zoomed in on what seemed like small nodes on the tree. These were what was left of the acorns. They had broken off in half leaving a little peanut shaped seed in the remaining shell attached to the tree like an incandescent bulb fitted in a shade.

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