On April 3, the administration in the Kashmir Valley ordered the felling of female populus deltoides, locally known as Russian poplars, within a week. If the “general public” failed to cut down the trees on their property within six days, the district administration would oblige. Trees in state or forest land would have to be felled by the social forestry department or other district level officers.

Reason: the spread of the coronavirus in Kashmir. The “pollen of said trees,” said one government order, “create influenza like infections which may create unnecessary panic among the general public”.

On April 2, Kashmir Divisional Commissioner Pandurang K Pole chaired a meeting to discuss “pollen-related infections” in the time of Covid-19 and “measures to get rid of this menace before the onset of flowering season across the Valley”.

Apart from the felling of the female poplar trees, Pole ordered district-level authorities “to enforce complete ban on plantation and growing of female Russian poplar trees in private nurseries”. This, he said, was in compliance with orders passed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court order.

As of April 2, the social forestry department had already felled 26,000 out of 66,444 Russian female poplar trees falling within its jurisdiction. “The remaining 42,000 trees need to be felled... in order to get rid of the menace of pollen bearing by this specie,” it was said at the meeting on April 2.

According to official figures, there are about 18-20 million Russian poplar trees in the Kashmir division. South Kashmir’s Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama districts have nurseries to grow them. It is not clear how many are to be chopped over the next week.

The usual suspect

The tall, narrow poplar trees have become common to the Kashmir Valley, guarding fields and lining highways. In April every year, the tree sheds cotton-like balls which float on the breeze and blanket every available surface. It is also in late April and early May that the number of allergies shoot up. Many, including the government, have attributed the yearly spike in allergies to the Russian female poplar tree.

But doctors and environmental experts in Kashmir think otherwise. “Every tree sheds pollen be it poplar, kikar or deodar,’ said a senior specialist of pulmonary medicine in Srinagar who did not want to be named. “But sadly, it’s the Russian female poplar which has earned a bad name for itself.”

The white, cotton-like substance shed by the tree was popularly mistaken for pollen when it actually contained seeds. “The reality is that the pollen shed by a Russian poplar tree, like every other tree, is invisible to the naked eye,” he explained. Pollen grains are the male fertilising agents of seed-bearing trees which need to land on a female cone of the same species for a seed to be produced.

The specialist also disagreed with the notion that the pollen of Russian poplars was responsible for the surge of respiratory allergies. “This is not primarily or secondarily responsible. All I can say is that it’s one of the many reasons,” he added.

Another doctor, who is an assistant professor at the department of medicine in Government Medical College, Srinagar, said the major cause of respiratory allergies in Kashmir was house dust. “There’s no doubt that spring is the key time for allergies,” he elaborated. “That means we have to be scientific about everything but we are not. According to studies, the commonest allergen pollen in Kashmir is grass, followed by kikar trees. Only 18% of allergen pollen comes from Russian poplar trees.”

Nevertheless, it is the Russian poplar that has borne the brunt of public wrath, with several public interest litigations demanding that they be felled. In the past, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court has frequently banned the sale, purchase and planting of female Russian poplars in Srinagar. In May 2015, it directed deputy commissioners across the Valley to fell the offending tree, observing that the health of the public was of “paramount importance”. Over the years, the court has repeatedly sought compliance reports on the implementation of its order.

‘Overlapping symptoms’

Doctors feel the government should reconsider its decision to cut down the trees. The specialist of pulmonary medicine thought the government might have been prompted to pronounce its sentence on the Russian poplars because Covid-19 and respiratory allergies have “overlapping symptoms”.

“Allergic symptoms are almost the same as Covid-19 except for the fever and body aches [in the latter],” he explained. “At the same time, Covid-19 has varieties.”

SA Gangoo, professor and head of the forest products and utilisation department at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in Srinagar, strongly felt it was the wrong decision.

“It’s not a good idea. When it’s not bad for the rest of the world, how’s it bad for us?” he asked. “The best way to prevent the shedding of cotton from these trees is through lopping. If we are able to lop the tree up to 80% of its height from the third year of its plantation, it will produce less cotton without any impact on its growth.”

He also pointed out that the United Nation’s International Poplar Commission recommends that the tree be planted to help with livelihoods and industrial development.

‘The tree which sheds dandruff’

It was the government which introduced female Russian poplars to Kashmir in 1982, under a project funded by the World Bank. The species, originally native to North America, where it is called cottonwood, is now widely grown across the globe. While indigenous Kashmiri poplars take 40-50 years to grow, a Russian poplar tree matures in 12-15 years.

With its high rate of growth, Russian poplars slowly replaced indigenous varieties and became commercially lucrative. Kashmir’s large apple-growing industry used poplar wood to make packing boxes. The wood is also used extensively in construction.

Gangoo points out “Russian” poplar is a misnomer. “When the tree was first introduced in Kashmir, some Urdu journalists, during a flowering season in 1990s, called it a tree which sheds rusi (dandruff),” said Gangood.“It got wrongly translated in English newspapers as the Russian poplar.”