Soil and water

A&E for Trees: Pioneering clinic in India offers lifeline to diseased plants | India

SAhib Singh climbs a portable ladder, reaches out and, using a few tools, pulls the banyan tree and manages to pull it out. The uprooted plant, which had grown on a wall inside the living room, is placed in a plastic bag filled with fertilized black soil. “We’re going to replant this on the hospital lawn,” Singh says over Skype, as he climbs back down the ladder. The operation takes barely 20 minutes.

The removal of the banyan tree, considered sacred in Hinduism, was the first of three calls Singh attended at his ambulance tree on a May day. He is a gardener and part of the team at Pushpa Tree and Plant Hospital and Dispensary, in the city of Amritsar, North India, launched in January 2020.

The hospital’s team of botanists, forestry experts, gardeners, volunteers and arborists provide free services to people who need help protecting the city’s biodiversity. They replant uprooted trees, tend to those that die, and ward off insect attacks from the fields. Sometimes trees are transplanted to more suitable locations.

“We provide around 33 types of plant-related services to people who call our helpline,” says Rohit Mehra, a civil servant and the mastermind behind the hospital. “When our lives are in danger, we have ambulances to transport us to hospital, but what about the plants that are so essential to the survival of our planet?”

The hospital has three tree ambulances – electric rickshaws which have been repurposed and filled with gardening tools, a portable ladder and a range of herbal medicines, fertilizers and growth tonics kept in neat plastic containers .

Rohit Mehra, second from right, and his team with some of the lotions and potions administered to diseased trees in Amritsar. Photography: handout

Rohit’s wife, Geetanjali Mehra, an environmentalist working with the hospital, says, “We only use organic and Ayurvedic herbs to make medicine, pesticides and fertilizers to cure plant-related diseases like lags. growth, parasite infestations and deformities.

“We use herbs like neem, cinnamon bark, ashwagandha [Indian ginseng]moringa [drumstick powder], as well as fruit and vegetable peelings to make our medicines. Neem oil mixed with water at a ratio of 70 to 30 makes it an excellent insecticide, as well as a plant tonic.

The hospital also refers to ancient manuals such as Vriksha Ayurveda, Panchratna and Vastu Shastra, which include herbal recipes, and has compiled a manual on herbal care. “Termite attacks are treated by filling a mud pot with jaggery and burying it in the fields after covering its lid. After 15 days all insects enter the pot and the field is cleared of termites You just have to remove the jar,” says Geetanjali.

One of three
Volunteer Ram Sevak loads one of the hospital’s three rickshaws converted into “tree ambulances”. Photography: Neeta Lal/Handout

Calls to the helpline are recorded and handled by the ambulance team, which includes a gardener, a volunteer and a biodiversity expert. For larger operations, more people are called on duty. Three to four calls to nearby areas are answered within a day.

Singh’s next stop is at a resident’s house with a cluster of neem trees that appear to be dying. Singh begins by carefully inspecting each tree. It then scratches their gnarled bark to get a closer look before bending down to examine the ground below.

After 15 minutes, the problem is diagnosed. “The trees have been poisoned,” Singh announces gravely. He asks his assistant to dig up the earth around the trees and remove it. Ten bags of fresh soil mixed with grass and fertilizer are brought from the ambulance and poured around the trees. “The trees will be better in a fortnight,” Singh said. There is a collective sigh of relief from the family gathered on the lawn. “The trees were planted by my father, who is no longer, so they have sentimental value for all of us,” says the owner.

Next call is a five-minute drive away, where a six-year-old fruit-bearing apricot tree was partially uprooted due to a dust storm the night before. As the tree is gargantuan, extra help is needed to lift it up and back into place.

Volunteer Ram Sevak calls the hospital for reinforcements. Within 15 minutes, three men arrive and, after a 90-minute struggle, the job is done; Singh and his assistant manage to plant the tree firmly in the ground using shovels and spades. As they wipe their sweaty brows, a round of applause breaks out. Finally, they fortify the soil with a mixture of herbs and spray it with a solution of neem oil and water.

“Everything will be fine; just make sure there are no insect infestations around him by spraying this herbal insecticide daily,” the gardener advises, handing the owner three bottles of a pesticide. The owner thanks Singh warmly and offers him a tip of 500 rupees (£5).

But the work of the hospital is not limited to the local area. “On average, we receive 20 to 30 calls daily from all over the world seeking solutions to various plant-related issues,” says Rohit.

“Recently, we received a call from a school in Paris who wanted us to come by plane to set up a similar hospital on their premises. Of course, we couldn’t go, so we gave them instructions on Skype. »

Find more Age of Extinction coverage here and follow the biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and patrick greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features