Brown oaks

I walked with The Young Niece beside the main Shimla-Kullu highway at an altitude of about 3 Kilometers above sea level. At this place the road was lined with enormous trees. I asked her whether she could put her arms around the straight trunk, and she said “The two of us together can’t do it.” She is almost as tall as me, so the circumference was a little bit more than 3.5 meters.

Most of the trees which we could see along the road were tall, maybe about 25 meters high. We stood below one and admired it. The Young Niece was very interested in the texture of the bark and the mosses which clung to it. I took a photo gazing up along the trunk (the featured photo) which she certified as a good capture of the bark. The trunk grew straight up for quite a distance before it branched out. They reminded me of the pillars in the tomb of the Ming emperor Yongle, each the trunk of a single deodar tree (called nanmu in China, and Cedrus deodara by botanists) imported from Nepal. She asked whether this was deodar.

We searched for the answer by looking at the leaves below the tree. The deodar would have had needle-like leaves. The Young Niece picked up several leaves from the ground. The more recently fallen leaves were still green on one side but brown on the other. Since the tree was not a conifer, I’d already begun to ask myself whether it was an oak. The leaf colour told us that it was a Himalayan brown oak (Quercus semecarpifolia). She sorted through a few leaves and found one which had turned a fascinating golden brown. I laid it on one of the concrete slabs which borders the highway and took the photo that you see above.

The Oak Society writes that these trees can grow up to a height of 30 meters, and have a girth of about 3.5 meters. That is about right for the trees that we saw. The bark was grey and had shallow cracks, as you can see. The leaves were about twice as long as they were broad, and the breadth was about 4 centimeters. They grew well-separated from each other, as you can see in the photo above, giving each tree enough space to spread its canopy. The brown oak is the major component of forests at this height, between 2 and 3 Kilometers above sea level, but disturbed forests are seen not to grow back. Again, much remains to be understood about these giants, but ecological models indicate that if the mean annual temperatures rise in this region by about 2 Celcius, then three quarters of the trees could be lost. I’m happy that I walked here and admired these trees with my niece; her children may not have this privilege.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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