The Wind In The Willow Trees

Did you know Ladakh holds a world record for planting trees? Find out more such interesting facts about Ladakh in this article by Rupert Winchester.


The ever pretty willow trees on the banks of river Indus in Ladakh

Even a casual visitor to Ladakh will notice that there really seem to be only two types of trees that grow here, the poplar and the willow. At slightly lower elevations, there are apricot, walnut and apple trees. But up here at Chamba Camp Thiksey, at 12,000 feet, the only trees that seem to grow are poplar and willow.

Of course, that’s not to say there are many of them. About 99.99 percent of Ladakh is entirely devoid of trees, it’s pretty much just spectacular rocks, and sand, and mountains, and nothing else.

But where there are trees, around villages and along watercourses, they’re exclusively poplar and willow. And the willow is a fascinating tree. And extremely useful. Here in Ladakh, the trees are heavily pollarded, and the thin, straight sticks are used for fence posts, baskets and roofs. Willows are planted on the borders of streams so their interlacing roots protect the bank against the action of the water. Willows are also a source of salycilic acid, which is the main component of aspirin, so, presumably, if you have a headache, you could chew on a stick of willow (not medical advice).

Apparently, according to a local academic, the imperialist British claim they introduced willows to Ladakh, but he contends that this is not true.  Other sources say that the British only introduced a particular type of willow, specifically for making cricket bats, but I can’t find any sources for that.

Ladakh also holds the world record for tree planting, a few years ago 9,814 volunteers planted 99,103 willow trees in one hour.

The poplar, on the other hand, looks like a very different sort of tree, but, it turns out, is quite closely related to the willow. They are planted up here because they grow fast and easily and act as a very effective windbreak. They grow astonishingly quickly and hugely tall. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be much to say about them. The Mona Lisa was painted on poplar, apparently. And they make villages here look as if they were airlifted in from Tuscany.

The massively tall poplar trees

The massively tall poplar trees

Compared to our other camps, especially at Kohima and at Dudhwa, the mono-arboriculture of Thiksey and Diskit can be a little odd at first. But the way the local population have adapted to use the trees and integrate them into their lives is nothing short of inspiring.

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