|Wooded wonder:The southern town of Tra Vinh has been named a Green Town for its hundreds of ancient trees. — VNA/VNS photo Van Khanh
Hundreds of ancient trees have been recognised as Heritage Trees. But this label affords them little protection against insecticides - or local people, who are often ignorant of their rich history. Nguyen Thanh Ha reports.
Still limber:This tree is more than 300 years old. Located in the northern province of Tuyen Quang's Tan Trao District, it has finally recovered from its ailments after years of treatment. VNA/VNS Photo Kim Phuong
Two vatica trees at Thien Co Temple in Viet Tri City in the mid-land province of Phu Tho are among about 500 ancient trees listed for protection as Viet Nam Heritage Trees.
The trees in Trung Vuong Village are said to be more than 2,100 years old. According to royal records, the temple was a place of worship for teacher Vu The Lang and his wife, Nguyen Thi Thuc, who devoted themselves to teaching princesses Tien Dung and Ngoc Hoa, daughters of the 18th Hung King.
Legend has it the two vatica trees were planted at that time. One had white flowers and the other had yellow. Local people called them the silver and golden trees.
More than 300 years ago a tropical storm hit the village and the yellow flower vatica tree broke off, leaving a stump. Locals thought it would die but a year later shoots burst forth.
The tree grew tall very quickly, producing yellow flowers every year until now it's 21m high, with the circumference of its trunk of 4.5m and a canopy spanning about 30m.
The former head of the management board which looks after the temple, Nguyen Huu Yet, said there was no actual record of when the vatica trees were planted, but the length of their roots was an indicator. They ran "as a dragon" to the village road more than 25m away.
He said that in the past, when passing by Thien Co Temple mandarins got down their horses while locals took their hats off and bent their heads in respect.
During a shortage of firewood in 1978, leaders of Dong Luc Co-operative wanted to cut the trees down to feed brick kilns but the village elderly would not allow it.
|Barking up the right tree:An ancient tree in Pu Mat National
However, the trees are not healthy, particularly the white flower one, which has a lot of parasitic plants through its branches.
Trung Vuong Village chief Nguyen Van Loan said: "We have hired workers to help local people cut back the mistletoe twice a year but it quickly grows again," Loan said.
Phu Tho Province's Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment head Bui Phuc Khanh said all ancient trees have "health problems".
"What's needed are concrete regulations covering the special care and protection of these historic trees. There needs to be more concern and care from local administrations and communities," Khanh said.
Another Heritage Tree is the camphor tree (cinnamomum comphora or da huong) in Tien Lac Village, Bac Giang Province. The large evergreen tree is native to Viet Nam and grows up to 20-30m tall, with glossy, waxy leaves and the smell of camphor when crushed. In spring it produces bright green foliage with masses of small white flowers.
Scientists inside and outside the country said the tree is one of such two trees in the world but the one in Africa had been already died so the tree in Viet Nam is the only one in the world, according to the Ha Noi Research Centre for Development of Ecological Diversity.
The majestic tree is estimated to be 36m tall with a circumference of 17m.
Tien Luc villagers called it "Great Grandfather". Elderly people relate a story from their ancestors about the tree. In the village records was written: King Le Canh Hung (1740-86) one day passed by the village and seeing the great beautiful tree conferred on it the title "The Biggest Da Huong in the Country".
A guardian of the tree, Nguyen Van De, 90, said the tree not only enhanced made the environment beauty but it was sacred symbol of the Vietnamese culture.
"Thanks to the tree's fragrance, local villagers have had good health to cope with epidemics when they occur in the area," De said. "That's why we consider the tree to be a sacred object to protect us from evils."
Village elderly noted an interesting phenomenon: there seemed to be a close connection between the ancient tree and contemporary society. "The tree's branches had never been broken by a storm but when an old branch drops, a new one develops more strongly.
De said hundreds of visitors to Bac Giang came to his village to see the tree. A group of Japanese volunteers said they had never seen such an ancient tree with such a strong camphor smell.
"We feel much more healthy after staying under the tree's shade. We'll tell our relatives to come to visit the tree next time," the volunteers said.
Nevertheless, while the tree never lost a branch in any of the big tropical storms that hit the area, De said it nearly died in 1983 when children lit a fire in a hole around one of its roots. For several days later, smoke rose high above the canopy and the fragrance of it essential oil spread far and wide through the village and surrounding areas.
An alarm was sounded in the middle of the night and village turned out with two fire trucks and the police to save the tree. They used all water in the village ponds to rescue the tree, said De.
They saved the tree, but it was exhausted, he said. Since then it became inhabited and eaten by worms, causing great concern among authorities and the villagers.
"We were very worried about how to rescue the tree until 2000, when scientists from the Ha Noi Centre for Ecological Diversity came to inspect and seek solutions to protect the tree," he said.
Centre scientist Vu Quang Manh said a lot of research was done on ecology, nutritution and genetics of the tree.
"Instead of using chemicals to kill the worms, which could cause harm to the tree, we released a dozen geckos to eat the worms," Manh said.
|Budding heritage: Shoots emerge from one of the old trees. — VNA/VNS Photos Thanh Vu
A VND2.6 billion (US$123,800) project has begun to protect the tree and a number of culture and historical sites in Tien Luc Village, which will turn the area into a tourism site.
The Viet Nam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment initiated the project to protect rare, ancient and historical trees. Association chairman Nguyen Ngoc Sinh said great importance was placed on the community's role in the protection process.
"Recognising heritage trees also aimed to improve people's awareness of conserving rare species, protecting national historical and cultural traditions as well as ecological diversity and the environment.
"It's also an opportunity to promote co-operation in environmental protection between local communities and organisations inside and outside the country," Sinh said.
A group of experts from Australia led by Paul Barber, director of the Arbor Carbon Co, recently visited the association to exchange views to prevent the use of insecticides and improve the "health" of ancient trees, Sinh said.
Barber said most important was the awareness of local people, particularly those taking care of the trees.
Using too much chemicals, building brick fences around the trees or cutting off too many branches could harm or kill the trees, he said.
Sinh said he hoped to receive long-term co-operation from international scientists, including Australian experts, to deal with complicated matters.
The association had faced difficulties. Two of the nine bachang mango trees, recognised as Heritage Trees in Ha Noi's Voi Phuc Temple in Tay Ho District had died through lack of proper treatment and the remaining trees had been drenched with insecticides.
"At the time when these trees were recognised as Heritage Trees, they faced ailments caused by insecticides. Experts from the Institute of Forest said the cost of treatment would be VND70 million ($3,400)."
The chief of the Voi Phuc Temple management board, Nguyen Van Tung, said: "We don't have such an amount of money. And it's a great pity that two of the trees died as a result."
Tay Ho District authorities recently held a meeting with the association representatives to discuss ways to protect the remaining bachang mango trees.
Tay Ho District deputy chief Ho Dinh Trong Son asked the Thuy Khue Ward (where the trees are located), the management board of the site and the district's Culture and Information Office to raise funds from different sources including donations from local people to treat the trees.
"Two 700-year-old bachang mango trees died, giving us a big warning and a lesson on the need for preservation work," Son said.
Since the Heritage Trees initiative was launched more than three years ago, many localities were happy to register their trees but they still lack measures to protect them.
"I hope that when registering heritage trees, localities should have long-term solutions to protect them," said Sinh.
More than 1,000 trees have been registered over the past three years and about half of them have already received the title Viet Nam Heritage Tree.
To register, they must be at least a century old and their location should be connected to a cultural or historical site or event. — VNS