Planting 'native' tree species in Ladakh

Planting tree species native to districts which border Ladakh and have a similar climate, rather than non-native introductions, many of which struggle to adapt to the extreme climate or risk causing serious problems, should be looked into

For too long, it has been thought that planting non-native species of trees is the 'solution' to improving the environment in Ladakh. This, presumably, is because very few native (wild) tree species are to be found and it is assumed they CANNOT grow in Ladakh. This is not necessarily the case. Just as in the British mountains, casual visitors may assume that the reason there are so few trees and no forests on our higher mountains is because the conditions are too severe, whereas the actual reason often lies with grazing. Experiments, where plots have been fenced of in Snowdonia e.g., show that protected from grazing animals native trees do in fact establish themselves. In many parts of the world, a lack of trees in mountains actually results from forest being felled centuries ago and then being unable to re-grow due to grazing pressure. Clearly, low rainfall in Ladakh is a major consideration but should not be misunderstood.

I draw readers attention to the DISASTROUS practise by Indian forestry departments of planting EUCALYPTUS from Australia in the hot and dry lower foothills of the Western Himalaya - far from 'conserving' limited supplies of water, these admittedly 'EASY-TO-GROW' aliens (non-native species) have caused MAJOR problems. One MUST proceed with caution if a non-native species can be grown too easily.....

Poplars and willows cultivated at Nurla Village, Indus valley

'Poplar' (POPULUS SP.)

'Willow' (SALIX SP.)

There are trees to be seen in Ladakh but these prominent willows and poplars (species of SALIX and species of POPULUS) which have been planted along water-courses since at least the 19th Century to provide shade, fodder and building material, are almost all ALIEN species. As there is not a culture of specialist horticulture (or arboriculture in the region) combined with extreme grazing pressures, only the easiest and toughest of woody plants are grown. Most of the willows and poplars can be grown by simply planting a 'slip' (short twig) in ground beside a stream or irrigation channel. There is no appetite for planting any tree which requires greater care/skills to establish.

Willows and poplars planted beside irrigated fields in Leh

And as Forestry department staff training is limited to existing non-native species, which seem to be selected primarily on the basis of being 'easy-to-grow', little research as to the possible down-sides of planting said species is conducted. Admittedly, given the limited funding which was available at one time, few libraries existed where Indian foresters and forestry students could learn from the experience of the cultivation of these trees in other countries.


I was alarmed to find out during a visit to Ladakh in 2011 that a major proposal (funding had been sought from the World Bank) had been prepared, including the introduction, on a large scale of 'Black Locust' or 'False Acacia' (ROBINIA PSEUDOACACIA) - which has been planted as a street tree in my own road on the outskirts of Slough. I don't know how well this species would adapt to the most of Ladakh but any attempt to introduce it anywhere in the region should be avoided at all costs! Thankfully, the proposal was not successful but it shows a COMPLETE lack of essential research. ENORMOUS harm could have resulted...

The reasoning for the proposal had been as follows. It was believed that this tree COULD be an important species for the region because:

1. "Its water requirement is less compared to willows and poplars"

2. "It is quite hardy and adaptable to extreme cold and climate" (apparently it is growing luxuriantly

at a nursery at Kargil)

3. "It yields excellent fodder, high calories, firewood and good timber".

This SOUNDS impressive but the author of the proposal has CLEARLY not done his research into the SERIOUS down-sides of this native of the southeaster United States. Whilst the climate in much of Ladakh is substantially different to most regions it has been grown in previously, the danger signs are clear-cut. There is plenty of information to draw upon. 'Black Locust' has been widely planted and naturalised elsewhere in temperate North America, Europe, Southern Africa and Asia. It is considered an invasive species in some areas. So there must be a risk of it becoming an invasive species in Ladakh, IF it grows as luxuriantly in certain parts of the region, as it does at Kargil! One should always be cautious if a plant has proven invasive elsewhere - even for places like Ladakh.

Its wood is extremely hard, resistant to rot and durable, making it prized for furniture, flooring, panelling, and fence posts. Most of these applications are different to the uses of wood in Ladakh. So I am not sure if 'Black Locust' is "good timber" for purposes in Ladakh?

As for firewood, my limited experience is that most willows and poplars do not burn well, so most trees would be an improvement. Apparently, this tree valued as firewood, burning slowly with little visible flame or smoke and has a higher heat content than other species growing widely in the Eastern USA. This sounds good. As rainfall is minimal in most parts of Ladakh its ability to burn even when wet, is irrelevant. However, it is valued in the US for use in wood burning stoves... In fireplaces or the open fires found in Ladakh it is likely to be MUCH less satisfactory because knots make the wood prone to "spitting" coals for distances up to a metre. This could be a MAJOR problem and result in burns in a Ladakhi house. IF the wood is cut, split and cured (seasoned) while relatively young, the 'spitting' is minimised but as Ladakhis may well be unaccustomed to doing this, having to wait before using the wood involves extra time and effort. SO THIS IS A BIG MINUS.

The Black Locust's nitrogen-fixing capacity is a BIG PLUS, especially in the relatively poor soils in much of Ladakh yet is gets no mention in the proposal above!

BUT THE BIGGEST CONCERN IS THE RISK OF POISONING ANIMALS! Since the leaves of this tree are toxic, how on earth is it considered an "excellent" fodder!! Horses that consume the plant show signs of anorexia, depression, incontinence, colic, weakness and heart problems. I don't have information to hand on other grazing animals but this is another BIG MINUS! So even if the foliage has "high calorific" value (on what evidence I wonder, given it toxicity to at least some animals), this does not matter.... As the specimen (or specimens of 'Black Locust' growing at Kargil is in a fenced off plantation, grazing animals will not have been exposed to the foliage. Had any trials of foliage or wood for fuel from Kargil specimens been undertaken prior to the proposal to plant it widely been made? If not, why not?

Black Locust is a major honey plant in Eastern USA and has been planted in France for this purpose. But honey-production is not a consideration in Ladakh.

In 1900 it was reported that the value of Black Locust was practically destroyed in nearly all parts of the US beyond the mountain forests, by locust borers which riddle trunk and branches. Were it not for these insects it would be a most value timber tree (for uses in N.America) in the northern and middle states. Young trees grow quickly and vigorously for a number of years but soon become stunted and diseased, rarely living long enough to attain size of commercial value. Whilst IF grown in Ladakh it might not be as prone to insect infestation, this is another MINUS.



A major re-think is needed. Projects should instead of alien species, concentrate upon trees which are native to bordering districts, with climates most similar to Ladakh. Baltistan is out-of-the-question as it lies in Pakistan territory and cross-border co-operation unrealistic. Ladakh is part of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. Jammu is in the Himalayan foothills, some distance from Ladakh, with a substantially warmer climate - and so plant material from here is unlikely to be suitable. The main Kashmir Valley, controlled by India, is part of the North-West Himalaya and though cooler and drier than the Eastern Himalaya and not suffering from the monsoon to any extent, is still much moister than Ladakh, such that Kashmir trees from or raised in Kashmir nurseries are unlikely to thrive in Ladakh.

This leaves LAHOUL, SPITI and KINNAUR in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The first two districts border parts of Ladakh. I have never been through Spiti (it was only opened to foreigners in recent years) and only once to Kinnaur. But I am familiar with Lahoul. The collections and notes made by Walter Koelz and Thakur Rup Chand (the Thakurs being the ruling family of Lahoul) about the Ethnobotany of the region allow me to make an informed preliminary list of species suitable for trials in the most promising locations in Ladakh. Given the proximity of Ladakh to Lahoul, transportation of cuttings, young saplings and seed would be the least costly time and money-wise.


POPULUS CILIATA - a native species in mesophytic forest in Northern Pakistan and Kashmir but as it also grows in Gilgit and Baltistan, worth trying.

PINUS WALLICHIANA - whilst the good growths of this Pine in Lahoul are restricted to the lower Chandra Valley and lower Chenab, there was once forest of this across from Kyelang and it is found in the lower reaches of the Miyah Nullah. These are certainly moister places but introductions from trees growing at its limit elevation-wise and dryness-of-climate-wise are worth experimenting with.

JUNIPERUS MACROCARPA - there are still forests of this tree in Lahoul (only scattered colonies in Ladakh) and in them some ancient specimens. Many of the patriarchs have from ancient times been designated as resting places for certain supernatural beings). Many of the hold trees are dry but the wood is generally left untouched lest harm come to whoever dares disturb the spirits.

SALIX DENTICULATA (Syn. SALIX HASTATA) - one of the major problems is identifying willows so deciding which is which is a challenge. Stewart records this as gregarious and very common on hillsides to 3700m. He also lists SALIX DENTICULATA x HIMALENSIS, with records from Gilgit and Baltistan. Koelz recognised two common species, both usually seen as shrubs but can become trees under cultivation.

BETULA UTILIS - this is found on the borders of Ladakh . It is only found in well-watered places. I consider this could be grown in sheltered places with a good supply of water.