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Plant Focus

Quercus texana New Madrid acorn
Disentangling the cultivar published as Quercus texana ‘New Madrid’

Destined to Encounter Quercus lanata

Sometimes when you least expect it, good things happen.

Panchachuli Peaks
View of Panchachuli Peaks from Datu Village (3,400 m), Darma Valley, Uttarakhand, India

I was on a 10-day exploration/family trip (8–17 October 2020) to Panchachuli Base Camp trek in Darma Valley of Uttarakhand, India. This area was recently connected with the rest of the world thanks to the construction of a barely motorable road. The primary focus was to enjoy the spectacular view of the Panchachuli peaks (a group of five peaks all above 6,000 m) and to inspect the Abies species dominating the upper slopes of the valley.

Quercus floribunda
One of the largest Quercus floribunda I have seen in situ,
near Dar Village at 2,220m elevation, Darma Valley

The expectations regarding Quercus species were limited to finding giant old specimens of already known species from the region, hidden in the untouched gorges of the valley. Those expectations were fulfilled when I found some of the largest specimens of Q. floribunda I have ever seen. 

Towards the end of the trip, on October 15, we were returning from the town of Dharchula (at an elevation of 900 m, half in India and half in Nepal) to the beautiful town of Nainital (2084 m elevation), through a route we were not supposed to take originally—an 11-hour, 280-km drive. We passed through the dense temperate broadleaf mixed forest, mainly dominated by oak and alder, between the town of Didihat (1,725 m) and Thal (885 m). This is where I first spotted, from a moving vehicle, at around 1,800 m, several oak trees with exceptionally big leaves. Like I have said before I wasn’t expecting much from the Quercus genera, so I presumed them to be Q. oblongata (syn. Q. leucotrichophora) and passed on.

Lopped tree
The oak I saw at Berinag during the tea stop

After reaching Thal we ascended to the town of Berinag (1,860 m). In Berinag we decided to take a tea break at a random shop after crossing most of the town. Little did I know that this random tea stop was going to serve me more than a cup of tea. Berinag is a big town situated on the mountaintop and gives a wonderful vista of some of the prominent peaks of the Himalayas, including all five Panchachuli peaks, Nanda Devi (7,816 m), Trisul (7,120 m), etc. So, to capture these beautiful peaks, I took a little stroll in the market to find a place with a better view. After walking a few meters, I turned right on an alley with a clear view of Nanda Devi (the highest peak in India that is neither disputed nor shared with any other country). 

Broad leaves
The leaves on the oak at Berinag were broad, like the ones I had spotted from the car on the road from Didihat to Thal

As I approached the vantage point, something else grabbed my attention. On the unintended route, at a random tea stop, in a random alley, I saw the same tree (heavily lopped) with broad leaves which I saw before in the forest between Didihat and Thal. What are the chances?! Earlier presumed to be Q. oblongata, it looked nothing like it on closer inspection. I had no idea what species it was. So I clicked some photos and collected some foliage. Of course, I didn’t forget to capture Nanda Devi, the primary motive of the stroll. The onwards journey, a seven-hour drive, was non-stop straight to Nainital. 

Nanda Devi
Nanda Devi (7,816 m) peak visible from the same alley where I saw the single lopped tree in Berinag

The next day, in Nainital, wasn’t scheduled with any specific agenda. The beautiful lake town is situated in the Sivalik range (foothills) of the Himalayas, surrounded by the dense forest dominated by Cupressus torulosa and Pinus roxburghii on the southern slope and Q. floribunda, Q. oblongata, Q. semecarpifolia, Rhododendron arboretum, Betula alnoides, Fraxinus micrantha, Acer cappadocicum, A. oblongum, Neolitsea pallens, Aesculus indica, Cedrus deodara, etc., mostly on the northern and western slopes. I had briefly explored this surrounding forest on a previous trip in April 2019.

Nainital
View of Nainital and Naini Lake through the forest of Cupressus torulosa, with Quercus oblongata and Q. floribunda surrounding the lake

This time I had the whole day on my hands to explore more. The schedule I drew up was simple. Visit Raj Bhawan (Governor’s house) in the morning, shopping for plants in forest nurseries in the afternoon, and walk around the Naini Lake in the evening. At noon, after covering Raj Bhawan, I went straight to find the forest department nursery in the Kilbury Forest area (average elevation 2,100 m), around 13 km from Nainital. Passing through the Kilbury forest, I hit the jackpot again! 

Killbury
Kilbury Forest

Same broad-leaf oak species I had seen a day earlier. This time it wasn’t a single lopped tree in an alley but a whole forest dominated by it. It was following me everywhere, asking to be rediscovered! It was my destiny that day! Now I was more eager to find a forest nursery to get its saplings. Luckily, I found a forest department worker, who directed me 11 km ahead to the nearest forest department nursery in Vinayak (2,150 m). This few hours’ project became the whole day’s mission! 

Broad leaf oak
The broad-leaf oak at Kilbury Forest

On arrival at the forest nursery, I was greeted by two forest workers. They showed me plants they were growing. Sadly, my mysterious Quercus wasn’t there. I asked them about the Quercus I had seen in Kilbury forest, upon which they pointed me towards two young trees growing in the distance within the nursery.

Young tree
The young trees I was shown at the nursery in Vinayak

Same species again! I was told they were around 15 years old, planted under an afforestation project that happened back in 2005 or so. That was the last year when this species was officially planted by the forest department, I was told. I asked them for more info on the species, but all they knew was the species grows at higher altitude on cooler slopes that are moist throughout the year. This wasn’t enough!

Leaves Vinayak
New leaves on one of the trees at the nursery in Vinayak

I asked them for any other nursery where I could find saplings of the species. They gave me the name of a lady who runs a private nursery funded by the government’s rural women empowerment scheme, 12 km ahead, in a village called Saur (1,800 m).

Twig
Twig with acorns from the oak at Kilbury Forest

Four o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was quickly dropping towards the horizon. Remember I mentioned that this was a family trip? Mother and sister were eagerly waiting for all this to end soon, so that we get back to our scheduled walk on the lake as I promised them, lol. But I had come too far to go back now. So, I persuaded them to go with the flow and followed the next lead. 

Leavesa
Upper and lower leaf surface 

Now, the address to the lady’s property wasn’t straightforward. We were supposed to drive 4 km back and take a different route from there for 8 km towards Saur. Just a few meters before the village, we were supposed to stop at a random roadside shop and ask for the lady’s house. We followed the instructions and luckily stopped at the right shop. The shopkeeper showed me the lady’s house and her nursery, 500 m down the valley, along an unpaved trail on a steep slope. 

Shoots
Twigs densely covered with yellow hairs

I started moving down asap, thinking about how I would bring up all the saplings I was going to buy. After 10 minutes I reached the place, and asked for the lady, who it turns out wasn’t present at that time. So her husband attended to me and showed me around the nursery. They had Q. oblongata and Q. floribunda saplings but not my mystery oak!! They have never propagated it before. I was a little disappointed that I was going home without it. But this visit wasn’t a total waste. I came to know the vernacular name of my mystery oak. There it’s called Ranj. Fun fact: the vernacular name for Q. oblongata is Banj. They are different species but with similar, rhyming names.

Undersides
Wooly leaf undersides at Kilbury Forest 

So I skip to the part where I got back to the car without any saplings but breathing heavily, having clambered briskly up that steep slope. The rush was because we had to reach Kilbury Forest, 15 km back, before the sun went down. 

Tree Kilbury
Kilbury Forest

We barely made it on time, just 20 minutes before sunset. I quickly clicked some photographs, collected some foliage samples and a few unripe acorns as well. The trees were growing on the western slope of the mountain, all above 2,000 m. This is the first time I observed the shoots at close range and felt the smooth, woolly leaves. My first thought was: is this the same species responsible for my many sleepless nights? The species which at one point I believed did not exist? The species used as a synonym for Q. oblongata? Is this Q. lanata? With many other thoughts and confusion in my mind, we returned to Nainital, collecting some foliage of Q. oblongata on the way. 

Comparison
Comparison of leaf shape and size in Quercus oblongata and Q. lanata

Many taxonomists consider Q. oblongata and Q. lanata to be the same species. However, I found that to be far from the case. Holding leaves of both species in my hands, I could see/feel the obvious morphological differences. Quercus lanata leaves were big, wide, and long, abaxially golden/yellow tomentose (heavily), while Q. oblongata leaves were longer than they were wide, and abaxially white (sometimes light yellowish) tomentose (not heavily as in lanata). Immature twigs were densely covered with yellow hairs for Q. lanata and densely covered with white hairs for Q. oblongata. The difference in the venation pattern was also clearly visible. 

Acorns
The immature acorns on Quercus lanata are quite similar to those of Q. oblongata

I found the overall structure and immature acorns of both the species quite similar. It will take one more trip to the Kilbury forest to determine more differences or similarities. At this point, it is clear to me, that Q. lanata can’t be used as a synonym for Q. oblongata. I will leave to the experts the question of whether they are different species or subspecies of each other.

Lanata
The golden/yellow tomentum that covers the undersides of Quercus lanata leaves

Now I am back home, writing this a month later, and realizing that the promise to the family of the walk around the Naini Lake was never honored. I have assured them I will plan another trip next year “specially” to keep that promise (coincidentally, just at the same time as acorns ripen… lol).