The forgotten hedges of Lutyens’ Delhi

These neglected leafy barriers in Lutyens’ zone — once ornamental and sites of biodiversity — are now large trees

June 10, 2022 01:20 pm | Updated June 13, 2022 03:13 pm IST

A basendu tree on Vijay Chowk

A basendu tree on Vijay Chowk | Photo Credit: Pradip Krishen

If you drive down Teen Murti Marg in late January or early February, you might notice with some surprise the bright new foliage of a small tree called khirk (Celtis tetrandra). It’s a time of dry-season dormancy in Delhi when most trees are decidedly moth-eaten or completely bare. That’s why it can be a bit of a shock to see such eager new foliage so early in the calendar year. Khirk is not an avenue tree; its new foliage shines out from overgrown hedgerows in sarkari bungalows.

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Haven’t heard of khirk? Not surprising, because you won’t find it in any Delhi nursery today and it seems to have gone out of fashion as a tree to plant. So what is it doing on Teen Murti Marg? A relict, perhaps, of some colonial planting scheme that’s been forgotten? The answer is ‘yes’, but khirk is only one lesser-known tree in a longer list.

Another hedge plant is putranjia (Putranjiva roxburghii), which can grow into a tall, handsome tree, but is valued for its extraordinary ability to ‘coppice’; that is, when you chop off a leading shoot, it re-directs growth hormones into side-shoots to become busily bushy — just the qualities you want in a good hedge. And that’s exactly why putranjia has been planted in the hedgerows of almost every bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi.

A phulahi tree that has all but disappeared from view.

A phulahi tree that has all but disappeared from view. | Photo Credit: Pradip Krishen

Then there’s kamini (Murraya paniculata), another vigorous ‘coppicer’, and evergreen to boot. Ditto with jungal jalebi (Pithecellobium dulce). And perhaps, least known of them all, phulahi (Acacia modesta), which was once touted as the best hedge plant in the Punjab with tiny, rounded leaflets and thorns to deter a gatecrashing buffalo. But phulahi has all but disappeared from view and public memory.

When small is good

So far as one can tell, none of these plants was intended to grow tall and tree-like in the hedges of government bungalows. Thirty years ago, the Gymkhana Club sported a brilliant hedge along one flank of Safdarjang Road consisting of an attractive mixture of equal parts of kaminiputranjia and jungal jalebi. The desired effect was an appealing jostle of leaf textures and subtly contrasting tints. Gone now, replaced by a high (dull) wall.

What’s happened with the passage of time is that the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), which looks after the bungalows in the Lutyens’ zone, has completely forgotten that these trees were intended to be ‘trimmed down’. They’ve been ‘neglected’ into becoming full-grown trees, which may not be a tragic fate but hedgerows make good sites for biodiversity and soften the hard edges of walls.

A khirk tree

A khirk tree

Wouldn’t it have been nice to have held on to some of those hedges? Birds, insects, even small mammals and reptiles, are some of the denizens of hedgerows, not to speak of jackals, which were once quite common around these bungalows.

I think it’s time we reminded the CPWD about the hedgerows. Though it’s a pity they need to be reminded at all.

The writer is an author of Trees Of Delhi: A Field Guide and an ecological restoration practitioner.

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