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The ‘oldest’ member of Delhi’s Nehru Park: Ullu ka ped, or the owl tree

Gardeners at the park are conflicted over why the tree is called ullu ka pedh.

A sprawling, giant maharukh tree is the local celebrity at the Nehru Park. Staff at the park, who know it as “ullu ka ped” or simply “ullu” (owl), say that it has been photographed several times.

“It’s possibly the oldest tree here. It was planted before any of us started working here. It cannot be younger than 50 years,” said Kishori Lal, the senior most gardener at Nehru Park, who has been working there since 1982. People have come to take pictures of it, and an event has been held beneath it, Kishori Lal said.

On a winter afternoon, when groups of people soak in the sun on the park’s manicured lawns, the leaves of the tree rustle in a light breeze. The leaves are a lot like neem leaves, but much bigger, giving the tree another name – mahaneem.

The maharukh tree (Ailanthus excelsa) dwarfs the younger jacaranda trees planted in rows nearby. “It grows very fast, and doesn’t need much care,” Kishori Lal said. It is fed by rainwater whenever it rains, and does not need regular watering. The tree has thick branches, with newer ones growing out of them. The pathway that runs through the park lies beside the tree, while the tree itself is on a small island of grass.

Gardeners at the park are conflicted over why the tree is called ullu ka pedh. While Kishori Lal said that owls inhabit the tree and that it has hollows that are perfect for owls, Leelaram, another gardener, says it’s just a name, like any other.

The maharukh is on a list of 16 trees that the Delhi government had intended to declare as ‘heritage’ a few years ago. While the plan had been to put up sign boards around these trees describing them, no such descriptive board has been put up around the maharukh.

The leaves and bark of the deciduous tree are used as a tonic for fever, bronchitis and dyspepsia, Pradip Krishen writes in his book Trees of Delhi. The wood of the tree is used for packing cases and toys. He writes that the tree is common in Delhi, on Copernicus Marg, in parks and public gardens, and is also seen in the Ridge. Small, yellow flowers can be seen on these trees in March, while the leaves begin to fall in April.

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