Safed Keekar: Delhi’s old native tree

The thorny Ronjh or Safed Keekar, with its grey-white bark is one of Delhi’s own, battling the scrubland and surviving with tenacity, much like its residents

Updated - October 20, 2020 07:05 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2020 10:00 am IST

The thorny Ronjh or Safed Keekar is native to Delhi

The thorny Ronjh or Safed Keekar is native to Delhi

Even as new high-rise apartment complexes plant exotic palms that are not native to Delhi, requiring more care, water, and other resources, outside the gates you may find a Ronjh growing wild.

Native to Delhi’s historical (what was once) open scrubland, this moderate to large sized thorny deciduous tree is characteristic of dry regions, hardy and drought-resistant, adapting to dry, rocky, sandy soils.

The Ronjh’s ( Acacia leucophloea ) crooked trunk and light yellowish-grey to nearly white bark, has given it the species name leucophloea , in which leuco means white. The tree is also often referred to as the White-barked acacia or Safed Keekar, for the same reason. On this bark are dark botches, which make it easier for people to identify it, as acacia is a big family of trees with similar appearances.

The tree has the tendency to form a spreading crown. Being deciduous, it is leafless towards the end of the cold season (January) and in the earlier part of summer, with new leaves appearing in April. It puts out blossoms from late August during the rains until November. During this time, the tree’s canopy is full of its tiny, spherical white and yellow flowers clumped together in round heads. This loose clustering arrangement of flowers has also earned this tree another name: panicled acacia. The flat curved fruit-pods ripen into a khaki colour by January

In highly arid conditions, the tree is stunted, but survives. According to an extensively researched book The Silviculture of Indian Trees written by R.S. Troup in 1921, it is not just drought-hardy, but is also able to survive in fires and frost, making it one of the most adaptable native trees found in the Indian subcontinent.

The timber is not of great value, but the hardness of the wood saw it being used extensively in semi-rural and rural areas for posts and beams, carts and their wheels, agricultural instruments and also for fuel. Herdsmen in drier areas of the country, including deserts, use their leaves as dry-season fodder, considering the dearth of food in the region at the time.

Historically, the tree has proved useful in several ways, according to Pradip Krishen’s Trees of Delhi. It says that the leaves yield a black dye, while the inner bark is used to make a red-brown dye and its fibre is used for making ropes and fishing nets. The bark and the gum from the tree are used in traditional medicine to treat bronchitis and asthma. The bark is often used to distil liquor, a reason for the tree’s other interesting name: Distiller’s Acacia or Sharab ki Keekar.

The Ronjh can be seen on The Ridge, Hauz Khas, Vasant Kunj and the tree-rich old JNU campus. Apart from the old trees, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurugram has attempted to bring back flora native to the Delhi scrubs with this tree being an important ingredient.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.

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