Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Deodar Tree: the Himalayan "Tree of God"

The deodar is a sacred tree in the northwestern Himalayas that has been planted extensively as an ornamental in Europe and North America. It is a towering, stately conifer with a striking appearance; its expressively pointed and drooping branches make it look like a sentient tree from an enchanted forest. One could imagine a deodar picking up its immense roots and striding forth, like an Ent from The Lord of the Rings. A dense forest of them in Kashmir must seem haunted indeed in the summer moonlight.

I grew up with deodars, as my grandparents’ house in Southern California had two enormous ones in the backyard, the silver-green tops of which were visible blocks away. I spent many an hour climbing up the thick branches, which were wide-spaced and easy to negotiate, and sitting with my back to the rough grey-brown bark. The sap was fragrant and hard to wash off my hands. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed spending time aloft in those trees. Squirrels raced in spirals up and down the big trunks and chattered from the heights. And great horned owls perched in the branches at night, hooting in the wee hours.

We lived only a few miles away from Altadena, a neighborhood squeezed between Pasadena and the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Deodars shade many lawns there, and provide a place-name: Deodara Drive. Two hundred of the conifers line Santa Rosa Avenue, and residents string them with lights every December, creating Altadena’s “Christmas Tree Lane,” a popular yuletide destination. Glowing lights also adorn tall deodars during the holidays in nearby San Marino on St. Albans Avenue. A few blocks away, the Huntington Library and Gardens is home to some impressive deodars planted in 1912, according to botanist Jim Bauml.

Growing up in the area, I was always curious about deodars, even more so when I discovered their origin. The word deodar comes from devadaru, a Sanskrit word that translates to “divine wood” or “timber of God.” The deodar is revered in the Himalayas and frequently mentioned in Hindu stories. Kashmiri and Punjabi villagers worshipped the “devadara” tree god.

Deodars range across the Hindu Kush and Himalayas, at elevations from about 3,500 to 12,000 feet. They are native to northeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan (where it is the national tree), India and western Nepal. Deodars are common in the regions of Punjab, Kashmir and the Himachal Pradesh. Extensive forests still exist in the basin of the main tributaries of the Indus River. They can live to be a thousand years old and grow as tall as 250 feet, which was first established by British botanist Dr. J. Lindsay Stewart, Conservator of Forests in the Punjab region in colonial India in the mid-19th century.

Cedrus Deodara is a member of an Old World genus of “true cedars,” that also includes the Biblically famous Cedrus Libani, or cedar of Lebanon. It is also related to the Atlas Cedar of the mountains of Northern Africa. The wood has a fine close grain capable of receiving a high polish, and it is in high demand as a building material. Deodar wood is often used both to construct religious temples and to landscape the grounds around them. “As Himalaya is considered to be the home of gods, it is believed that the forests are the part of their house. The landscape around temple is considered sacred and is preserved as temple grove. The tree of Cedrus deodara is believed to be the tree of God and is planted around temples,” wrote the authors of a 2006 article in The Journal of American Science.

Deodar wood is extremely durable and rot-resistant. Deodar pillars of the great Shah Hamaden Mosque in Kashmir are over four centuries old. Hindu temples have been reputedly been built with deodar wood that has lasted 600 to 800 years. A 1926 Scientific American article described a bridge in Kashmir with deodar timber that was little decayed after four centuries of exposure to river water.

When the British colonized India, deodar wood became the most sought after timber in the country and was used extensively for the construction of barracks, public buildings, bridges, canals and railway cars. The demand became so great that numerous deodar forests were harvested beyond the point of recovery and conservationist action was initiated in 1864 by the aforementioned Dr. Stewart. Unfortunately, deodar deforestation has picked up in recent decades, across the Hindu Kush and Himalayas.

Deodar wood is also prized for its curative properties. According to Indian Ayurvedic medicine, deodar bark, oil and wood powder possess anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-cancer properties; and are used against fever, diarrhea and dysentery, for skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis, and to aid digestion. Insects avoid the wood, and an oil distilled from the deodar has been used as an application to the feet of horses, cattle and camels as a preventive against the bites of the troublesome Himalayan “potu” fly. The aromatic wood is used as incense. And, as if all that weren’t enough, Hindu Kush sibyls (female oracles) have used the smoke of burning deodar wood for divine inspiration. Clearly, the deodar is a most useful tree.

Deodar seeds made their way to Great Britain in 1831, and ten years later to Ireland and Scotland. In 1885, an Altadena resident named John Woodbury planted two hundred deodar saplings in parallel rows on his family’s rancho, down what is now Santa Rosa Avenue. They have been festooned with Christmas lights every year since 1920.

The next time you see one of these beautiful, striking trees in Pasadena or Palo Alto, San Francisco or Seattle, remember that it’s not a pine tree. Rather, you are gazing upon devadaru, the “tree of God.”

To help preserve remaining stands of deodars in their native habitats, these organizations are both involved with conservation and reforestation efforts in the Himalayas.

Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation

World Wildlife Fund

*J.C. (Chris) McGowan previously published this article about the deodar tree:
"Majestic Conifers from the Himalayas" by Chris McGowan, Los Angeles Times: Home 56, Dec. 5, 1982.