As Yellow Can Be

I never knew that coming to Hubli-Dharwad after a gap of three months would hold a surprise for me. In December it was the colour mauve and this time it was fluorescent yellow. Nature can hold so many surprises!

Riding in an auto rickshaw towards Hubli from Dharwad, my wife’s hometown and the place known for its chocolate-coloured pedhas, on a mid morning of March I chanced upon couple of trees standing at a distance glowing. Literally. The colour was bright, eye-catching, arresting as if someone has downed a can of colour.  The trees dressed in fluorescent yellow or electric Lime as it’s known—making the surroundings luminescent. I had never seen anything like this. Yes, I’m familiar with copper pod which also produces yellow flowers. But Yellow Tabebuia is in a different league altogether. Plant scientists know it as Tabebuia Argentea.

Yellow Tabebuia

Suitable for avenue planting Yellow Tabebuia is a quick growing tree, it attracts bees in hordes when it bloom between February and April. Originally from Brazil it can reach a height of 10m and become completely leafless when it blooms. Its foliage appears after it has shown its true colours, I mean post-bloom.

Planting Yellow Tabebuia on road sides would be a great idea providing eye candy to those travelling on the road and for the future of the bees.

Baer With Me, Please

In most Bengali households, in the past, we were refrained from eating kool (baer or Indian jujube) before Saraswati Puja or the Basant Panchami arrived. We never asked our parents why we shouldn’t but followed their advice as we didn’t want to incur the wrath of Ma Saraswati on us, we were school goers. Moreover, those days Google Assistant was not around to ask.

For the ivory-skinned goddess dressed in a white sari seated on a swan and holding a veena is the epitome of knowledge, learning and wisdom.

All these came to my mind while I was picking up kool from the roadside which the tree had shed. January and February is the season when kool appears in the market.

The local varieties of kool have long vanished from fruit carts and even from fruit mandis for the preference now is for Apple Bhor of Baer which looks like a miniature version of the green coloured apple. They have a shiny look but are tasteless. Yes, they are crunchy like the apple. Whoever innovated Apple Bhor failed to make it sweet! And that is its undoing. I feel sorry for the present-day kids who will never see them. As for me, I would prefer eating a piece of cardboard than bite an Apple Bhor.

Apple Bhor is a Thailand variety fruit and the farmer grows it as he gets a good price. Its claimed to be pest resistant. Fruits are big and it has more shelf life. It yields twice a year and the crop time can be adjusted based on the market demand.

My Wish List

Is saal kya? (What’s new this year?)

Bunch Pepper

As the monsoon dawns, we, farmer colleagues, often ask of each other what new do they intend to plant. For the earth, when moist is the best time to plant a sapling. However, we generally plant a fortnight before the arrival of the monsoon or after the fury of the rains has abated. Preferring to plant saplings in the last days of September or in the beginning of October. Incidentally, there were sporadic incidents of rains in November last year.

Last year I had planted several herbs, couple of Kesar mangoes, custard apple, chia, betel leaf, mulberry etc. I also experimented with growing Azolla.

My wish list is neither exhaustive nor is it limiting because there are chances that while visiting a plant show or a nursery I do end up buying some! In fact, that happens really often. Though a bibliophile (and a reader) in recent years I have collected more plants than books. That reminds that I need to make a list of plants and their varieties growing in my orchard. I did know their names while acquiring them but have forgotten many of them. Blessed with botanist friends I’m just a WhatsApp message away when I’m unable to identify them.  

My wish list this year includes the following:

Bunch Pepper: The fruit trees in my orchard have been around for quite some time now and have spread their branches making the ground below shady. Which has compelled me to seek out shade-loving plants? What better than pepper? A commercial crop it fetches around Rs 700 a kg. Bunch Pepper, a high yielding variety of black pepper developed by farmer T T Thomas of Idukki, Kerala has become the choice of prospective black pepper growers in Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. A recipient of National Innovation Award and Plant Genome Saviour Award, Thomas’ variety called Pepper Thekken, unlike the ordinary one, gives a yield of more than a 1000 pepper balls in a single bunch. It’s also unaffected by the quick-wilt, the bane of spice growers. This variety has the potential to make spice growers in India to enhance their livelihood and also holds promise in the export market. The Indian Institute of Spice Research, Kozhikode, has recognised this variety as a unique high yielding one with branches in the spike, a rare feature in black pepper.

Jivanti (Leptadenia reticulata) : Its name itself is very catchy and wooing. In Ayurveda, it is known for its revitalizing, rejuvenating, and lactogenic properties. The therapeutic potential of this herb is because of the presence of diverse bioactive compounds. At present, L. reticulata is a threatened endangered plant because of over exploitation, unscientific harvesting, and habitat loss. The increased demand from pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, and veterinary industries has prompted its large-scale propagation. I’m told its propagation through seeds is very poor but through cuttings, the results have been good. The mention of Jivanti is even found in Atharva Veda. Charak and Bhavprakash, describe it as best among leafy vegetables. It is included in Jivaniya Gana, which is the group of herbs used for promoting vitality and life.

Maidenhair Fern: Maidenhair fern is the source of a pleasantly aromatic volatile oil long used as a rinse or shampoo that rendered black hair very shiny, hence the name Maidenhair. The same extracts have been peddled by herbalists to cure asthma, the flu, or as a general tonic though there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.

Pink Trumpet Tree (Handroanthus impetiginosus):  A semi-evergreen tree it grows 20-30 feet tall with a grey fissured trunk and palmately-lobed leaves divided into as many as seven leaflets radiating outward. The pink trumpet flowers have a white throat with yellow stripes and blooms in large clusters in the spring just before the new foliage emerges. It flowers in early December. With its impressive flowering display, the tree is often cultivated as an ornamental plant and can be a good source of nectar for honey bees.

My Experiments With Azolla

Did you say mozzarella…you make cheese?

A friend asked me a few minutes after he had stepped into the farm while I was elaborating on my new project—growing Azolla.

Most people who have never been associated with farming and even those who have taken to it newly hardly know anything about the fastest growing plants on the planet.

Azolla tank at my farm

It has taken me close to a month and two failed attempts to have Azolla growing on my farm.

I’m told several coffee growers and other crops grown in natural ‘tree-shade’ environments in Kerala and Karnataka uses Azolla as biofertiliser. That’s what piqued my interest in Azolla. Azolla has enormous potential to sequester of atmospheric COdue to its rapid growth in freshwater without the need for a soil-based nitrogen source.

Azolla does not need any soil to grow. Unlike almost all other plants, Azolla is able to get its nitrogen fertiliser directly from the atmosphere. That means that it is able to produce biofertiliser, livestock feed food and biofuel exactly where they are needed and, at the same time, draw down large amounts of  CO2  from the atmosphere, thus helping to reduce the threat of climate change. You read it right my Azolla tank sequesters carbon oxide from the atmosphere. That’s my humble contribution to resilient and sustainable agriculture. Presently, I’m using the biofertiliser for my betel leaf, avocado and coconut. According to Azolla Foundation to 32.54 metric tonnes CO2/hectare/year after 18 days growth can be sequestered.

It doesn’t take much to grow Azolla. It can be grown in a pond or a water tank. You need the following:

·         3 to 5 kg for Azolla

·         Soil or vermicompost

·         Rock phosphate or Single Super Phosphate

·         Cow dung slurry

After a week your Azolla is ready to be harvested, every third day. If not harvested regularly Azolla starts getting rotted. Check out this excellent video by a friend for guidance.

As said earlier it’s an excellent feed for goat, cow and poultry and reduces the cost of commercial cattle feed by 25 per cent.


Farmer Develops New Custard Apple That Doubles Yield, Has Fewer Seeds & More Pulp

If you love sitaphal or custard apple, you’re likely to choose the fruit which promises a long shelf life, and has fewer seeds which don’t stick together. Once you cut open the fruit and find that it has thick, cream-white pulp, which is somewhat granular, you are finally happy with your choice. These are traits you can find in the NMK-01 variety.

Those who wait for this fruit from the Annonaceae family to arrive early December have to thank farmer-innovator Navanath Malhari Kaspate of Gormale village in Solapur, Maharashtra. He has developed five other hybrid varieties of the fruit—Anona-2, NMK-01 (Golden), NMK-02, NMK-03 and Finger Prints—but considers NMK-01 (Golden) to be his illustrious one; it has fewer seeds, abundant pulp and rarely cracks when ripe.

Interestingly, its harvest can be extended after it matures and the yield doubles with every season.

As one arrives at his 50-acre Madhuban Farm and Nursery, like the scores of farmers wanting to grow the variety—all are greeted by a huge replica of the fruit at the arched entrance. The place is a ‘living museum’ of 42-odd varieties of custard apple collected from different parts of the world by 64-year-old Kaspate.

If you visit during the fruiting season, you’re likely to come across varieties with names like Anona Glabra, Pink’s Mammoth, Anona Muricata, Icecal, Washington Jem, Anona Montana and others.

Native to South America and the West Indies, sitaphal was introduced to India by the Portuguese during the 16th century AD. Amazingly, its appearance has been noted in ancient Indian sculptures. There is a depiction of custard apple in the Bharhut and Sanchi sculptures in Madhya Pradesh, the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, and the carvings at Mathura in Uttar Pradesh from the 2nd century BC.

Presently grown in 13 states of the country and Tanzania, mainly in dry-land zones, growers not only have a good word about the NMK-01 variety, but are all praises about the yield, which can be as high as 12 tonnes per acre.

The fruit has other varieties, namely Red Sitaphal, Balanagari, Washington and Purandhar, but it is the NMK-01 (Golden) whose acreage is increasing each year due to its acceptance from buyers and the remunerative results achieved by growers.

Being a dry land crop, the first two years are very crucial to its growth; it needs minimal irrigation and can be solely drip-fed. Because of this, there are fewer pest attacks.

Kaspate’s farm is unique as it happens to be the country’s largest nursery devoted to sitaphal, serving as a development and research centre too. Developing a new variety is generally undertaken either by universities or institutions like the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research. But in this case, it was a class 11 dropout, who had the passion of a grower and the perseverance of a plant breeder.

“I used to grow grapes and ber (Indian jujube) like many others here, but having developed the variety in 2001 and giving it my name, I converted my entire farm to sitaphal,” says Kaspate, the man who introduced the farming community to NMK-01 (Golden) in 2011.

Five years later, he was awarded the Plant Genome Saviour​ Farmer Reward constituted by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority. He received a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh for the same. Ahmednagar-based Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth is a recipient of the germplasm of 16 sitaphal varieties gifted by Kaspate.

Ever since NMK-01 (Golden) was launched, the innovator claims to have sold 30 lakh saplings to the hundreds of farmers who visited his farm for his workshops, or to those who seek him out after watching his videos on YouTube. He makes at least Rs 1 crore from selling the fruit which he brands as being from “Madhuban Farm and Nursery”. The saplings that are sold here at Rs 60 each also add to his earnings.

Among the earliest farmers who took to growing NMK-01 (Golden) is one Nandlal Dhakad (45) of Jaisinghpura village in Chittorgarh district of Rajasthan. He watched Kaspate’s videos and visited his farm in Barshi, and planted 400 saplings on his teen bigha zameen (which is less than an acre) in 2011. Four years later, he received a harvest of 10 quintals, earning Rs 2-3 lakh per year.

“I have been getting a very good harvest, but this year, due to excessive rainfall, my harvest has been greatly affected,” he says.

Besides two post-graduate degrees, he also holds a diploma in computer applications. Nandlal is an award-winning farmer who grows exotic vegetables and betel leaves, using the principles of jaivik kheti (organic farming).

Most fruit lovers shun the sitaphal due to its excessive seeds. And that’s where NMK-01 (Golden) scores. According to a comparative study undertaken by a researcher at Mohali-based National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute, NMK-01 (Golden) was found to be superior to the Balanagari in taste and nutrition. While the Balanagri had 70+ seeds, the NMK-01 (Golden) barely touched 15!

Giriraj Gupta of Narsingarh village in Madhya Pradesh, says, “You may not believe it, but I got a fruit which weighed around 730 grams, and I had to share it with three others. Interestingly, it had just ten seeds.”

He continues, “Each tree yields at least 20 kg of fruit from the third year of plantation. An acre holding 340 trees yields an average of seven to eight tonnes a season. In 2015, I had planted it on eight acres. This year, I hope to make around Rs 12 lakh from its harvest.”

It was the promise of plentiful pulp that prompted Ramesh Pawar (46) to plant Kaspate’s variety on his 80-acre drip-irrigated farm in Chikodi village, Belgaum, Karnataka in 2012. Having read about the NMK-01 variety in a Kannada weekly, he visited Madhuban and acquired nearly 28,000 saplings which were a year-old. “I harvest about four tonnes per acre and this is likely to increase with successive years. I am looking forward to making at least Rs 1 crore by the next season,” he shares.

The variety which arrives in the market in early December has brought in cheer among farmers in the country’s dry land areas. And as the word spreads, more and more farmers are switching to NMK-01.

This article by me appeared in

Pink Crowns Plenty

It’s very unlikely that those visiting Hubbali’s Bhoomaraddi  College of Engineering and Technology in the month of December will be told that its campus is home to two specimens of Pink Tabebuia or Pink Trumpet Tree. It’s a cousin of Yellow Trumpet which is found in plenty.

Pink Trumpet

I had never seen anything like this. Two trees with blooming pink—the flowers in a bunch sitting like a crown. If there were leaves they didn’t show up. Or were overshadowed by the flowers. It was a sight I would pay hundreds to view. I was Intrigued, mesmerized by the beauty in front of me.  No one around could name it so I sent a pic of the plant to my friend, botanist Dr Ajit Gokhale for identification.  I also shared it with my friends who are passionate about plants.

Few minutes later Dr Gokhale replied that it was Pink Tabebuia (Handroanthus impetiginous), a plant rare in Mumbai and Thane but there was one in Dombivali.

Crowning Glory

Also called Basant Kumari, it flowers at the beginning of December and stays so for a fortnight. I feel it may be very enticing and attractive for the bees and that set me thinking if I could lay my hands on a couple of them and make my bees happy.

The pink trumpet flowers have a white throat with yellow stripes and blooms in large clusters in the spring just before the new foliage emerges. A native of South America, mainly from Argentina north through Central America to Mexico it has not attracted the attention of horticulturists and that’s reason nurseries rarely keep them. However, I found a nursery in Tara (Pen taluka), close to Yusuf Meherally Centre which had a lone specimen. The plant was huge and one would need a truck to carry it to an orchard! Interestingly, Hasuram Patil, owner of Vanrai Nursery assured me that he would get me a smaller one. I’m waiting for his call.

Termites: Planet’s Most Underrated Insects

“You care for walvis (Marathi for termites),” he said and jumped out of his seat to shake my hands.

It happened after I had informed a group which had assembled in Saguna Baug, Neral stating that I live in harmony with the termites and has never tried to exterminate them, as the case is with most farmers or farm owners.

The one who shook my hands was none other than Krishibhushan Chandrasekhar Bhadavsale, the man who has innovated the sustainable and climate-resilient Saguna Rice Technique. Complimenting he remarked: “It’s rare to come across one who loves termites and you’re among the few.” 

They are the unloved freaks of the social insect world—the termites. While bees are praised for their pollination skills and ants lauded for their industry, the termites munch their way through everything — our libraries, our homes, and our farms. But Lisa  Margonelli’s mesmerizing book, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology makes clear, we have got termites all wrong.

For a start these “white ants” aren’t ants at all but cockroaches that evolution has shrunk blinded and turned surprisingly social. The termite bucks basic biological rules and thumbs its nose at science as much as it does homeowners. But this mystery makes termites fascinating to the author and a motley crew of multidisciplinary scientists who are all trying to crack the termite code and put it to good use. As we stand “on the border of our natural history and an unnatural future,” this masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human — as much as what it means to be termite — and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.

This is what you see on the floor of my farm in October

Utter the word ‘termites’ and you’re likely to hear orchard growers curse them. In the Konkan belt of Maharashtra it is considered a menace and one needs to live with or without, as you prefer to. Every means available is used to exterminate them but all efforts fail miserably. For they return after a brief hiatus. We tend to forget that they have been around much before man descended.  In fact, they share a relationship which is as old as this planet.

Having been a weekend farmer for over a decade now let me share a secret with you: I know how soil is made. The process begins sometimes in early October when the soil is not moist enough as the rains are now a memory. The twigs, fallen branches, dead leaves, fruit waste and all have become the manna for the termites.

Watch carefully and you’re likely to see what termites do to the litter? It envelopes the leaf litter, twigs etc. with a film of soil and within months the same disintegrates to become a fine powder, like sawdust. And ultimately becomes soil.

In the initial years, I too felt that there is something wrong with my soil but I played the game of caution: watching the organic matter turn to soil, as days’ progress to become months and as seasons come and go.  I have been restraining myself from any kind of intervention which is likely to disturb the ecological cycle.

Once the rains come, the termites go into hibernation for the moisture is its arch enemy.  But I do take precaution so that termites do not attack my fruit-bearing trees by applying a paste of lime and copper sulfate, beginning with the base of the tree trunk and reaching a height of a metre or so. Also in order to fool the termites, I make it a point to spread leaf litter, broken branches, twigs all over the place to lure and keep them busy to do what they are good at.

To consider termites’ plunderers is unfair. They are the most important animals in a forest ecosystem, single-handedly decomposing 40% to 100% of the decaying wood and thereby enriching the soil. Subterranean termites, which are among the ones that bother us, humans, serve us well too. As they tunnel through the soil, building swarming tubes to forage for food, they increase the soil’s porosity, facilitating greater percolation of water. Termites are known to dig as deep as over 100 feet in search of water to maintain the humidity of their mounds.

Soils develop layers as organic matter accumulates and leaching takes place. This development of layers is the beginning of the soil profile.  This humus-rich topsoil where nutrient, organic matter, and biological activity are highest (i.e. most plant roots, earthworms, insects, and micro-organisms are active. Termites feed on a carbo-rich diet of wood, soil, grass, litter and even animal dung. Concrete is no barrier either, a small crack is all they need to start occupying space. The greatest secret to their success is their choice of food: they exploit an exclusive and abundant food source, a biomolecule called lignocellulose, which no other creature, not even other insects, can eat. Since lignocellulose does not degrade easily, termites can access it from living plants and dead wood or soil too.

Every time the termite feeds or builds, it modifies the habitat for the benefit of other organisms including humans. This might explain why termite mounds, mistakenly called ant hills, are worshipped – the clay from termite mounds was used to build Vedic fire altars and included in the Rajasuya yajna performed by kings.

In Underbug Lisa Margonelli investigates the environmental and economic impact termites inflict on human societies in this fascinating examination of one of nature’s most misunderstood insects. She introduces us to the enigmatic creatures that collectively outweigh human beings ten to one and consume $40 billion worth of valuable stuff annually―and yet, in Margonelli’s telling, seem weirdly familiar. Over the course of a decade-long obsession with the little bugs, Margonelli pokes around termite mounds and high-tech research facilities, closely watching biologists, roboticists, and geneticists. What begins as a natural history of the termite becomes a personal exploration of the unnatural future we’re building, with darker observations on power, technology, historical trauma, and the limits of human cognition.

Whether in Namibia or Cambridge, Arizona or Australia, Margonelli turns up astounding facts and raises provocative questions. Is a termite an individual or a unit of a superorganism? Can we harness the termite’s properties to change the world? If we build termite-like swarming robots, will they inevitably destroy us? Is it possible to think without having a mind? Underbug burrows into these questions and many others―unearthing disquieting answers about the world’s most underrated insect and what it means to be human.

Betel leaves, the new resident

Many of my friends may frown if they come to know that I’ve planted half a dozen paan (betel leaf) cuttings in my farm. Because we associate paan with the dirty red stains which adorn the walls of offices, staircases, public urinals and roadsides. I was introduced to paan by Keya who any time of the day has a paan in her mouth. The wonder of wonders she has sparkling pair of teeth.

Having brought cuttings of Maghai paan years back from her native Cooch Behar she planted them in her bungalow garden in Thane. A creeper with heart-shaped leaves it dominates her patch of green and is a welcome look for visitors who pick a leaf or two while leaving.

I have planted the paan cuttings after having them for over a week now post-lunch and realized that it helps in digestion, fights bad breath and much more. My research yielded that betel leaves contain many curative and healing health benefits. They are full of vitamins like vitamin C, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and carotene and are a great source of calcium. The reason this aromatic vine is considered a herb and can be grown easily, even in homes.

Based on shape, size, brittleness and taste of leaf blade, betel vine is classified into pungent and non-pungent varieties. Though India boasts of around 40-odd varieties we know of only three varieties of paan, namely Maghai, Calcutta and Benarisi. Of this, Maghai though small in size holds the Numero Uno position due to its taste.

Betel leaves (BL) are cultivated in the states of Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

 In the other states of Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, where it is also consumed, the crop is grown in a very small area.

 The country has exported 13195.43 MT of BL to the world for the worth of Rs. 46.75 crores/ 6.74 USD Millions in 2018-19.

BL is a shade-loving, subtropical vine in the same plant family as black pepper and kava. It has glossy, heart-shaped leaves and needs to be grown on a stake or trellis. It prefers moist soil in a partially sunlit location

Chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a tradition, custom or ritual which dates back thousands of years from India to the Pacific. Since ancient times BL has been used as an aromatic stimulant, anti-flatulent and an aphrodisiac. The ancient Chinese traveller Ibn Battuta described this practice as follows: “The betel is a tree which is cultivated in the same manner as the grape-vine; … The betel has no fruit and is grown only for the sake of its leaves … The manner of its use is that before eating it one takes areca nut; this is like a nutmeg but is broken up until it is reduced to small pellets, and one places these in his mouth and chews them. Then he takes the leaves of betel, puts a little chalk on them, and masticates them along with the betel.”

Chewing habits of people have changed over time. The BL is chewed together in a wrapped package along with areca nut and mineral slaked lime. Catechu (kattha) and other flavouring substances and spices were also added subsequently. For many decades, tobacco has also been added to the BL package. The practice of chewing BL has been decreasing progressively and now the quid comprising of tobacco, areca nut, and slaked lime (gutkha) is generally in practice. It’s the tobacco, areca nut and catechu which are considered harmful and should be avoided.

You may include chuna (calcium hydroxide), fennel, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, gulkand, grated coconut and other spices for extra flavouring. As it is chewed, the peppery taste is savoured, along with the warm feeling and alertness it gives (similar to drinking a fresh cup of coffee). Betel leaves are a powerhouse of antioxidants which clear radicals from the body. It restores normal PH levels in the body and helps an upset stomach.

Ever wondered why having a paan after a good meal is recommended?  Because it’s carminative, anti-flatulent and helps in protecting the gut. BL increases metabolism triggering circulation and stimulating the intestines to absorb vital vitamins and nutrients.

Hope my friends will believe now that I’ve done right.  I assure visitors to my farm that I shall gift them a handful fresh BL! 

Awaiting Sal In Konkan

Asked what are the joys of owning an orchard? I would say there are many but what really matters is the community endeavour (yes, you read it right). That’s the involvement of friends and acquaintances who further your passion and even call you crazy.  It’s like the hobby of stamp collection. Your co-hobbyist gifting you what you’ve been looking for quite some time but couldn’t lay your hands on or you gifting your extra stamp to someone.

I’ve come to believe that people gift you a plant or seeds which they would like to have in their garden but as they don’t have one they magnanimously offer it to you. My friends have fetched me plants to be included in my space-starved orchard from different parts of the country and even abroad. Twelve long years and each monsoon accommodating a new green guest or guests have made my acre too crowded but I’m not complaining. There is always some space in the forest! Mine is almost like a food forest. Year round there is something to be had. In March-April the Love Apples, Mulberries and Honey; in May-June the Mangoes, Jackfruits and Turmeric; in July and August the leaves of Colocasia plants; in September corn; from October to May leafy vegetables/fruits like Moringa, Red Sorrel, Spinach, Coriander, Mint, Amaranth, Pumpkin, Bottle Gourd, Bitter Gourd and fruits namely Pineapple, Papaya, Banana etc. Then there are the year-round bounties offered by Chickoo, Coconut, Lemon, Stevia etc.

I have received saplings from many—like the Avocado brought by Jeffries from Chikmagalur; the Gandhoraj Lemon from Bongaon by Dr Ghosh; the Litchi from Muzzafarpur by Madhurvat; the Mango from Kannur by Girija; lemon from Rajkot by Ami; bamboo from Mangaon by Anand; Vetiver from Khar by Kamal  and several others.

Recently, it was Bidyut who lives close to Gurudev Tagore’s Santiniketan in Bolpur gifted me a plastic container full of brown Sal tree (Shorea Robusta) seeds. It’s called Ashvakarnika in Sanskrit. Santiniketan was originally an ashram built by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore in 1888.  The ashram residents planted avenues of Sal tree on this arid land which earlier was populated by only Chhatim trees (Alstonia scholaris). The daily walks under the tall Sal bon (forest)  Rabindranath, I believe, may have inspired him immensely to pen those beautiful poems devoted to nature.

In wetter areas, Sal is evergreen; in drier areas, it is dry-season deciduous, shedding most of the leaves in between February to April. It leafs again in April and May. Its flowers are whitish in colour which appear in early summer. In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that Gautama Buddha was born under the branches of a Sal while his mother was en route to birth him in his grandfather’s kingdom. It’s one of the most important sources of hardwood timber in India, with hard, coarse-grained wood that is light in colour when freshly cut and becomes dark brown with exposure. The leaves are used commercially for making plates and containers

Sal tree features in one of the Jataka tales as Bhadda-Sāla Jātaka . It’s a story of a king who wanted to build a palace supported by a single pillar of a Sal tree and his dialogue with a Good Sal Tree.

Jharkhand has forests made up entirely of Sal trees. The Oraon adivasis call it as Sakua.  Oraon adivasi Jacinta Kerketta’s poem Laal Nadiyan traces how the forest’s Sal trees, rivers and earth have turned a toxic, infertile red with mine dust, even as the youth are enticed by crumbs of CSR Programmes setting up football leagues and youth clubs (Saazishon Ki Six Lane).

Emerging from the forests of Saranda

Gathering are people in a certain village.
Women with infants in slings on their backs the aged scaling the valley leaning on their staffs

The young leaping over the hills

and children counting the sakua trees as they walk.
They gather not for a protest march

but a football tournament to watch

Where a goat is to be the winner’s trophy.

Coming back to Bidyut, a painter, sculptor and the country’s leading mud-house architect who offering me the Sal tree seeds stating: “See if you can grow them. It will make a pretty sight as it is in Santiniketan.”  

Before planting a sapling or seeds I generally do some research about the same and reach out to experts too. “Sal is not native to Maharashtra. But if you have any specific purposes then try planting it. I haven’t come across any successful attempt of the same. We tried making its saplings but very low success rate,” wrote Manasi of Oikos Ecological Services following my query. Oikos have made a comprehensive list of plants which can be grown in the different regions of Maharashtra and the same is much shared among farmer Whats App groups.  

I will try planting them: three-four of them together hoping some would germinate and become a tree one day.

TNAU Agritech Portal gives me hope that Sal is likely to grow around my orchard for it requires average annual precipitation between 1000 – 3500mm. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and will keep you updated, if it does.

Keya’s Karamcha


My friend, Keya recently introduced me as her ‘Mitti ka dost’ (meaning friend of the soil) to someone who knew about our common interest: keeping and maintaining a garden.

Keya is crazy about plants and vegetables. She can go to extreme length to acquire one. And have them planted in her garden attached to her bungalow in Thane’s Manpada. She enjoys sharing her adventures (or misadventures) which one may call as obsession. Years back, she recalls, entering a ditch which had lotus flowers in plenty. While her husband held her one arm with the other she tried plucking them. In the process, she slipped, fell and had to be pulled out. But she emerged with a couple of lotuses. Her clothes were entirely soiled. So much so that the autorickshaw wallah refused her a ride.

The other incident was more prosaic.

While commuting in the local she happened to see some leafy vegetables growing alongside the tracks. It was a discovery for her as the leafy vegetables reminded her of her hometown in Cooch Behar. That day he left the office an hour early, got down at the station and walked to the designated spot and picked up the leafy vegetables. Well, her husband wasn’t amused by her adventure.

Last September returning from her maternal home she sent a pic of her seated in the train surrounded by all sorts of plants. Among them was the less known aromatic plantain, called malbhog which she gifted me. The malbhog duo has grown tall but still not yielded its scented banana. Yes, a couple of suckers has sprouted around them.

Today she gifted me Karamcha (Karanda) fruits. Having brought a sapling from her home town she had planted it in 2002. It has taken 17 long years for the pretty looking fruits to yield. She told me that she had thought of chopping and uprooting it as it refused to fruit. 17 years can be a pretty long a period to wait for a tree to fruit. Even the Guinness Book would be surprised!  Maybe the plant sensed that it would be killed. And that prompted it to fruit. Yes, plants do have feelings.

 Though the name Karamcha sounds familiar I had never seen this before for it​​ rarely makes it an appearance in the market.

It may be passed off as cherry in the market but the Karamcha is a delicious fruit in its own right. A medicinal plant, its fruits are a rich source of iron and contain a fair amount of Vitamin C and so effective in curing anaemia. It is a hardy and bushy plant that grows well without much care and because of its thorny nature it is often grown as a hedge and it serves as a fencing plant too. Scientifically known as Carissa carandas, there are no well-established varieties of Karamcha but some cultivated types are selected on the basis of fruit colour, such as green fruited, whitish fruit with pink blush and dark purple fruit. Some varieties like Pant Suvana, Pant Manohar, Narendra Selection etc. are considered promising for the future. Natal Palm, an African species bearing large dark red fruits, is also grown in some parts of India. A new variety “The Kamal” has been developed by the Central Institute of Arid Horticulture, which is better than other varieties in quality fruit production. The fruit is red in colour.

Generally, Karamchas are grown from seed and vegetative propagation techniques such as cutting, grafting and layering are not commonly practised. But air-layering is possible and should be done with 6-8mm thick branches between July and August with a hormone powder for root growth. This would give the highest success and take the least number of days to initiate primary roots.

A hardy plant, it requires little care once it has settled into the soil and attained proper growth.  Its ripe fruits make a spectacular display amidst green foliage. The fruits are mainly used for making marmalade and jellies. Bengalis use it in their dals (lentils).