Agricultural scientists and doctors say the cottony appendages produced by female poplars as part of seed propagation trigger allergies and respiratory ailments.
“The overpopulation of female cultivars of some poplar species like Populus deltoides and P. nigra has become a menace as the seed-carrying cottony appendages produced by them cause various respiratory diseases,” Mohammad Yousuf Zargar, dean at the faculty of forests, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology (SKUAST) tells SciDev.Net.
“These cotton tufts reduce visibility and clog the radiators of vehicles besides causing respiratory disorders and irritation to the eyes, nose and throat,” Zargar says. “The problem has become severe in the last few years.”
Mohammad Maqbool, a leading eye, nose and throat specialist, confirms that between late April and June his clinic in Srinagar is crowded with people seeking treatment for respiratory ailments caused by copious amounts of poplar fluff flying about in the air.
The menace was serious enough for the state government to order a ban on further planting of poplars in Srinagar, the state capital, where the local population is worst affected.
Kashmir cannot afford to do without poplars because the wood provides low cost timber for roofing rafters and for making crates to transport valuable produce like apples, peaches and pears. It is also used for making plywood and fencing.
Russian poplar, first introduced into Kashmir in 1982 as part of a World Bank aided project, has now almost completely replaced the harmless indigenous varieties. Kashmiri poplar trees take 40— 50 years to grow fully while the imported species mature in about 15 years making it ideal for commercial growing.
Zargar, who led a team of SKUAST scientists submitted a report “Strategies for controlling cotton seed menace from Poplars in Kashmir” to the state legislative assembly in 2013, says the species saves about 300,000 cubic feet of conifer timber annually.
The department of forest is yet to work out the positive impact of poplar wood as a substitute for forest timber, but Syed Tariq, an official at the State Forest Research Institute of Jammu and Kashmir, describes it as “enormous.”
Tariq and other experts believe that the answer to the health and environmental problems caused by poplars lies in phasing out female trees, mass plantation of male clones, regular lopping and further study using germplasm banks.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.