Treats shoots and leaves: At a unique plant hospital in Amritsar

None of the patients has a heartbeat, but the emergency care is just as urgent.

Every morning, Geetanjali Mehra, 41, spends her first few waking hours responding to distressed plant owners on WhatsApp, who are worried that their beloved greens won’t make it.

“I get about 50 messages a day. Many are about diseased plants, insect attacks. Some are reports from concerned passers-by about ‘assaults’ on trees,” says the interior designer and environmentalist.

Geetanjali and her husband Rohit Mehra, 45, an additional commissioner of income tax, run the Pushpa Tree and Plant Hospital and Dispensary in Amritsar, a one-of-a-kind free facility where, yes, an ambulance does occasionally trundle out of the gates, to ferry a distressed potted patient in for admission.

The facility, inaugurated in January 2020, is named after Geetanjali’s late mother, who was a great lover of plants. The hospital occupies 1,200 sq ft within Geetanjali’s 1-acre ancestral homestead.

The in-patients have plenty of company here. The Mehras have converted this space into a lush garden. They say it’s where their “rescues” are replanted. “We carefully uproot roadside vegetation that is dying of neglect or banyan and peepal roots that sprout through cracks in walls and threaten their structural stability, and bring them here,” says Rohit. “Here, they get a second chance at life.”

The hospital is funded by donations and the couple’s savings. A team of three paid staffers and 10 volunteers, a mix of botanists, gardeners and field operatives, offers 32 types of free services, from nursing plants suffering from infections or infestations back to health, to providing immunity boosters and transplantation advice.

A “medicare” helpline number (89683-39411) also fields calls from across the country, from plant lovers seeking advice. Most questions are tackled in-house, but in severe cases, the hospital reaches out to volunteer consultants and botanical experts. All medication prescribed is organic, Rohit says.
Among the best parts of the job? The follow-up calls of good news. “People proudly send pictures of how the plants are thriving, long after treatment,” says Geetanjali Mehra, co-founder of the hospital.

Among the patients that have been treated by this facility is a hibiscus belonging to Amritsar businessman Amit Trikha, 45. He first came upon the service on Facebook, and reached out to the plant helpline in July, after he and his gardener both failed to tackle a mealybug infestation in his beloved plant. “The ambulance promptly arrived at my residence and treated the plant with herbal sprays, which saved it,” he recalls. They also inspected the other trees and added nutrients to the soil of a guava tree that wasn’t bearing fruit. “A few weeks ago my guava tree started flowering. And it was all free of cost.”

The ambulance, incidentally, is a repurposed electric autorickshaw donated by a well-wisher. It is equipped with herbal growth tonics and fertilisers, different types of soil, gardening tools and a portable ladder.

Root to stem

“People form such strong emotional bonds with their plants, it’s even surprising,” Geetanjali says. “But many think that the best way of expressing this love is by watering plants, sometime two or three times a day.” As a result, the most common panic calls the helpline gets are about root or stem rot.

Across Amritsar, the team is sometimes called in to assess the prospects of trees felled by a storm, save plants that have been poisoned, or assist with tree transplantations. Their most difficult operation so far was reviving a 95-year-old ber (Indian jujube) that had fallen over in a storm last year. “It took five people to lift it, place it back in position and fortify the soil with herbal insecticides,” Rohit says. The 12-ft-tall ber is still alive and thriving.

Among the best parts of the job? The follow-up calls of good news. “People proudly send pictures of how the plants are thriving, long after treatment,” says Geetanjali. “Sometimes we’ll hear back from someone because they’re moving cities, and want advice on how to move their most sensitive plants.”

The helpline gets some strange requests too. “One man asked me to uproot and transplant a disputed mango tree planted by his grandfather, from his brother’s property to his own, 20 ft away,” says Rohit, adding that he had to politely decline the request. “We can’t really help everyone but are glad that people care so much about plants and trees.”

Lately, the Mehras have been getting calls from people wanting to set up similar plant hospitals in their cities. “An NGO in Mumbai contacted us; an environmentalist from Rajasthan visited our hospital and noted how little is actually needed for an endeavour of this sort,” Rohit says. Why, their plant ambulance even doubles as a “Tree ATM”, handing out saplings of native species such as amla and jamun. “Our field staff also brief recipients on how the trees can be nurtured,” Rohit says. “It’s like a thank-you gift from us to those willing to do their bit to make the world greener.”

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