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Saturday, 21 July 2012

Magnolia campbelli var alba
Rhododendrons occupy much space in the popular imagination when one thinks of Sikkim and its floral beauty but this small flowering tree, the Magnolia, in its different forms also deserves equal, if not more, appreciation and concern, writes DECHEN LACHUNGPA

My father and I happened to drive to Darjeeling with the intention of taking photographs of Magnolias in bloom. The place is famous worldwide for its magnolias. Infact it has served as a gene pool for some of the hybrids propagated commercially. The first tree we came across was at Jorebungalow. It was a pink form of Magnolia campbelli growing very close to the main road. From there on the entire area of Ghoom, Darjeeling town, Jaldapahara, Rongbull, Sonada, Sukhya Pokhari was found covered with pinkish and white forms of Magnolia. We noted that magnolia trees were found concentrated in urban areas. It may be the case that these trees were planted by the Britishers for whom Darjeeling was a summer retreat. It is quite a spectacle when these trees that flower gregariously are in full bloom. Darjeeling looks more beautiful and picturesque at this lean period from last week of May to June, than during the peak tourist season. Since these magnolias are found in urban areas, due to population pressure, there may come a time when these trees have to be removed to make way for constructional space. I pray and hope that the trees will be preserved over years to come. Magnolia campbelli is native to Himalayas and found at altitude of 7000 ft to 10000 ft. It’s the “Queen of Magnolias” named after Archibald Campbell by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Amongst these pink and white forms a lot of variation were observed - creamy white, deep pink, light pink, some with darker pink at base. It is high time that these trees are propagated vegetatively in order to preserve and protect these new variants.
Closer home, Sikkim is blessed with the white form of Magnolia campbelli var. alba commonly called as Gogey Chaap. It can be seen growing in scattered patches at Phadamchen, Lachung, Lachen, Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary and Tholung.  A small patch plantation can be seen on the way to Tsongmo. It was planted during 1985 by forester Late Chezung Lachungpa, which has now started blooming. The pink form is very rare in Sikkim and one tree can be found at Raj Bhavan Complex behind the Governors’ residence. I chanced upon this tree while doing an inventory for the book “Biodiversity of Raj Bhavan” along with SZ Lucksom.
M. Globosa at Lachung
Incidentally Sikkim’s rich forest also has a beautiful species of Magnolia globosa commonly called as Kokre Chaap. It is found as a large shrub or small tree at 8000 ft to 11000 ft from Eastern Nepal to China. It is found in the areas of Tholung and Lachung. Hidden amongst the grove of the popular Sikkim Rhododendrons and the majestic Silver firs these truly very beautiful trees seem to go unnoticed - in all probability overshadowed by the hypnotic aura and beauty of Rhododendrons. Its flowers are creamy white with red anthers which do not open fully and form egg shaped cups, commonly referred to as “hen magnolia”. It is a deciduous tree and the size of the flowers found in the Eastern Himalayas is the biggest.
Another such species found in the forests of Sikkim is Magnolia hodgsonii (syn. Talauma hodgsonii). It is a small evergreen tree found at 4000-5000 ft in forests of Dzongu, Toong, Naga and Rhenock. It flowers from the months of May to June. Sir JD Hooker has regarded this tree as the handsomest of Magnolia species in the whole of Eastern Himalayas. Sadly this tree is fast becoming rare and sincere efforts should be made towards its propagation.
Magnolias are the most primitive of flowering plants. The magnolia flowers do not have distinct petals and sepals and hence the name “tepal” was coined for the first time. It evolved millions of years before bees, wasps and butterflies so they rely on beetles as their pollinators. Beetle pollinated flowers are characterized by their large size, white pink or red colour, abundance of pollen and lack of nectar. Beetles are fond of pollens which is a rich food source.
Magnolias find a special place in gardens all over the world. M. campbellai has been hybridized and many beautiful garden hybrids have been developed. Magnolia flowers have been featured in Chinese porcelains tapestries etc since they symbolize purity and candour. Magnolias can be considered as an indicator species for climate change. M.liliflora, M.grandiflora, M.soulengiana, M.stellata are some of the exotic hybrids introduced and cultivated in gardens of Sikkim and neighbouring states.
Magnolias are propagated through seeds, grafting, layering and cuttings. Seed propagation takes a longer time to flower, about 5-15 years. Seed should be collected after the fruiting clone splits open. Seeds should be cleaned by soaking in detergent to remove the oily film. It is advisable to propagate these trees through vegetative propagation in order to maintain a pure line. The favourable season for plantation in case of dormant varieties is January to March and in case of evergreen variety after the first monsoon shower in June.  During plantation care has to be taken that the root system of magnolia is not damaged, since they have fleshy roots and will not heal easily.
In the wild it usually grows in association with other tree species and takes advantage of the shade provided by the trees. This is so because the associate trees serve as nurse plant, the family magnoliaceae requires protection at early stage of growth till it attains height of 10 to 12 ft. Magnolias are tolerant of urban areas which tend to have warmer temperatures and shelter provided by the buildings. They grow well in small beds or adjacent to buildings with only paving slabs. The root grows under the slabs and takes advantage of the protection provided by the slab. Since they do not have penetrating roots it can ideally be grown close to buildings.
The saying “we do not realize what we have until it’s gone” holds very true. We have such a rich repository of very beautiful flowering trees. The trees may not be commercially valuable for timber but nonetheless these trees because of their beauty have to be given importance and people should be encouraged to grow them. The trees are ideal for plantation during the State Green Mission and Ten Minutes to Earth.
[The writer is a Divisional Forest Officer, JICA assisted SBFP project, of the State Forest Department]
Source:Sikkim Now

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