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Plant Focus

Quercus macdougallii
A rare oak endemic to the Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca

The Himalayan Oak Trust

It sounds like something out of science fiction, but David Cranwell has managed to create a reality where an acorn planted in New Zealand grows into 50 oaks in the Indian Himalayas.

David Cranwell
David Cranwell with Himalayan evergreen oak in bloom © Tim Whitaker

The story began in the late 1980s with a visit to Eastwoodhill, New Zealand’s National Arboretum and home to the largest collection in the Southern Hemisphere of Northern Hemisphere plants (see article). David, passionate about trees since his boyhood spent on an orchard, was bowled over by the experience. Of all the trees there he picked one that he wanted to grow himself: the Himalayan evergreen oak. He was unable to find any trees in New Zealand, but when three years later he traveled to Ranichauri in Uttarakhand, northwest India, to work on a World Bank project, he came across the species in its natural habitat. And he was appalled.

On Himalayan foothills that had been covered by oak forest for centuries, David found defoliated stubs, like “enormous bonsai trees,” that had been stripped for cattle fodder and building materials. Population pressure is the main culprit: the average family has seven children to feed and women use foliage from oaks to feed the cattle. The trees’ branches are lopped to such an extent that they are not able to produce acorns and propagate. Less forest means more soil erosion due to monsoon rains, and springs and even rivers have run dry. “When the monsoon hits,” David explains, “it filters through the leaf litter and subsoil, charging the springs. But with population pressure, fire, timber harvest etc., all that’s left now is grass—when the rains hit that, it roars off, gouges out the rivers, and the springs are dry.”   

Quercus leucotrichophora seedlings in David Cranwell's nursery

The Trust has partnered with the India-based Himalaya Consortium for Himalaya Conservation (HIMCON), which oversees ground-level conservation projects, and with Manoj Pande, a trustee and chairman of HIMCON, who works closely with a small group of local women. With these partners, the Trust has focused on several projects in Tehri Garhwal District of Uttarakhand, the largest of which has been a three-year conservation project aimed at rejuvenating the Himalayan oak population.

Pink foliage on new growth of Himalayan evergreeen oak

In order to raise funds for the Trust, David grows and sells Himalayan evergreen oaks in New Zealand. Initially he imported acorns from India, after obtaining an import permit from the Ministry of Agriculture. He requested acorns from Ranichauri, to be collected by school children under the supervision of Dr. Vinod Shah of the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology. David hoped he might get about 50 acorns. However, the small print of the permit he had sent allowed a maximum of 1,000 acorns and when David received the package posted by the schoolchildren it contained... 1,000 acorns!  

David's granddaughter Ava, here planting acorns, has shown a keen interest in the oaks

The species in question is Quercus leucotrichophora (for some, a synonym for the less sonorous Q. oblongata), known in India as banj. It is an evergreen or semievergreen tree, usually growing to 16-18 m, or more in its mountain habitat. Salient features include the white undersides of the lanceolate leaves and the pink new growth. Over 10,000 Himalayan evergreen oaks have been planted throughout New Zealand and sales of trees have raised in excess of USD 70,000 over the last 20 years. Initially the idea was for companies and individuals to buy and donate trees to be planted in schools. A number have been selected to plant as memorials, and they have also been used in large scale plantations. They are fast growers and David recommends them for soil erosion control and as an alternative to willows and casuarinas for windbreaks. His latest experiment has been to send seed to truffle growers to experiment using the species as host trees in truffle orchards.

Himalayan evergreen oaks planted as a hedge to serve as a windbreak in a kiwi fruit plantation

Through the Himalayan Oak Trust, David has made of this oak a vehicle to help others. On its website one can buy a tree to plant in New Zealand or sponsor a tree. In both cases, the result is 50 trees planted in India and a contribution to the restoration of a damaged oak forest and ecosystem, and also a contribution to the welfare of the people that participate in it. A worthy cause indeed.

For the complete story of the Himalayan Oak Trust visit their website and for latest news read Bridget Freeman-Rock’s excellent article in BayBuzz Magazine: From Acorns to Himalayan Oaks.

Quercus leucotrichophora acorn
rabbit guards
Spray guards protect seedlings against rabbits and herbicide
Young oaks planted as a windbreak are trimmed in their first years to encourage them to grow straight
Fifteen-year-old Himalayan evergreen oaks in a sheep and cattle farm in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
David's new nursery contains over 1,000 oaks, all sold for delivery in 2019.
Recent new orders will enable production to be upped to between 4,000 and 5,000 plants per year,
greatly increasing cash flow available for the Trust.
nursery 2

All photos © David Cranwell unless specified.