Flower Memory

Such occurrence doesn’t happen often. At least I haven’t seen it in my decade of watching the natural world. I also believe that a decade is a mere blink.  In the second week of  February, I had made several cuttings of Gliricidia, the green manure tree, and put them in nursery bags. So that they would get ready for plantation before the monsoon appears.

In the first week of March, I came across flowers which have appeared from the cuttings. The episode was timed with the flowering of Gliricidia. A clear indication that the cutting (branch) instilled the memory of flowering. And when the mother plant bloomed the cutting too flowered.
I haven’t seen this happen in any plants I have worked with. Isn’t it a miracle of nature? I think so. If you’ve come across such miracles I would like to hear from you.


Mulberry Days

For a fruitarian, summer is the time s/he anxiously waits for. With the last days of February it begins with mulberry, then comes green jackfruit, followed by grapes, watermelon, love apple and ultimately ending with the king of fruits: Mangoes.
Most orchard owners do not care much for mulberry for various reasons as it invites scores of birds and then there is the problem of picking the tiny fruits. But my purpose has been to build an ecosystem where I am happy to have the bird, the snakes, the butterflies, lizards and all sorts of benign and harmful insects. Well, the birds do chomp away a lot of mulberries. I let them have it for I have benefitted from their transgressions. They have brought and deposited seeds in my garden, of which some have grown into trees, namely the Laburnum, Singapore Cherry and several others.

mulberry (2)In my childhood, I knew mulberry as shehtoot. In Marathi, it’s known as tooti. Having spent my childhood days in Cantonments in places like Kanpur, Ludhiana and Ambala we were exposed to the cream-coloured variety which we devoured returning home from school after having written our exams. I have the magenta-coloured one. It makes its appearance as green, turn’s red with time and ultimately assumes the dark shade of magenta making one feel that it’s black! And that’s when the birds come to have their share. Not a stray one or two but scores of them raising a ruckus.
Plucking them individually is a chore and time-consuming though Mangal likes them that way even climbing the tree. I try the easy way out spreading old sari all around and violently shaking the tiny branches. The ripe ones get dislodged and drop down.

My mulberries—I have three of them—yields fruits twice. In October-November and once again in March. The trick is to prune the tree every year which results in the appearance of new branches along with leaves.

InShot_20180307_204205Though packed with nutrition, mainly anti-oxidants mulberry have a very short shelf-life and thus not available in the market. They also contain large amounts of vitamin C as well as Vitamin K, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, really high levels of Iron, and Dietary Fiber which all help to give the body and mind incredible energy.

According to www.ReturntoNature.us.They are also high in minerals like potassium, manganese, and magnesium and contain the B vitamins, B6, Niacin, Riboflavin, and Folic Acid. Mulberries contain flavonoids and phytonutrients and are extremely high in anthocyanins which help to fight against cancer as well as reduce ageing and neurological diseases, inflammation, diabetes, and bacterial infections. The berries also contain resveratrol, a powerful blood flow increasing antioxidant which you have probably heard promoted through the wine industry as their new claim to fame. Resveratrol is a powerful healer for many conditions such as ageing diseases, inflammation, and a number one go to as part of a herbal protocol for the treatment of Lymes disease.

Growing them is very easy as a mere cutting planted during the monsoon can yield a tree. I try to populate my orchard with one mulberry every year.

This year I had a bountiful harvest. It made wifey very happy and she made several glasses of smoothie which we have been downing your throats every morning. She has promised to make jam and pancakes too.

Bloom of The Ball Tree

What an amazing sight it was? You need to see to believe in its beauty: the flowers cascading down the tree trunk like scores earthen lamps tied to a string. I had almost missed it hadn’t been for my gardener friend who introduced me to it sometime in the third week of February. The Cannon Ball true was in full bloom. I gasped in wonder at the mesmerizing splendour standing several stories high in front of me. At its foot was lying a couple of flowers which had lived its day.

IMG_20180227_111503The Nagalinga or Shiva Linga tree has been grown widely in Shiva temples across India. In Hindi, it is also called Shiv Kamal or Kailaspati. Interestingly the petals of the Naga Linga flower resemble the hood a snake.

It’s very unlikely that you will come across a Cannon Ball tree: for they are as rare as the Baobab Tree. Though the tree produces fruits the size of Cannon Ball the seeds rarely germinate.  The fruits are large, round and heavy as their namesakes. When falling on the earth, they often do so with loud and explosive noise. Naturally, so they are not planted next to footpaths. You know why?  Because a falling fruit could easily cause a fatal injury!


Native to the southern Caribbean and northern parts of South America it has been known in India for at least 3,000 years; found growing at temples.

The fruit appears to be developing straight from the trunk of the tree like in the case of jackfruit. The fruit has a truly awful stench to it, unlike the flowers which are very brightly coloured with strong, sweet-scented blooms.

Biochar, the best way to dispose coconut shells

This Sunday something surprising happened. Months back, if I remember rightly, I had asked her whether she used grated coconut in her kitchen. And she, a Tamilian, had said: Yes, I do.

Thinking it as an opportunity to bring her closer to my plan I had said: “Can you gift them to rather than throw in the garbage bin.”

I had explained to her in details why I needed and she agreed. I knew I had converted to my cause.

biocharFour months later she waited for me at Badlapur station with two shopping bags full of coconut shells. I made a return gift of a medium-sized green papaya, a bunch of lemongrasses and a handful of carrot.  She was delighted and promised to motivate her neighbours too towards this eco-friendly disposal of coconut shells.

Days later Mangal helped me make charcoal out of the coconut shell which we commonly have known as biochar. Being porous biochar stores moisture for a longer period and can be spread around plants. Within a couple of months, biochar decomposes increasing the carbon content of the soil.

Coconut shells generally take nearly a year to decompose. Converting them into biochar hastens the process immensely. It’s very simple. Make an oven out of bricks, place the coconut shells and introduce the fire. Don’t let air to move in. And you get biochar in minutes.  As it cools spread them around your farm.

Thanks Poornima for believing in my cause. May your tribe increase?

Also read: https://anibongpalm.com/2010/06/23/the-case-for-coconut-waste-utilization-i/


‘Bamboo needs to be accorded the importance of a cash crop’

Botanist by education and horticulturist by profession, Hemant Bedekar was recently awarded a PhD for his thesis titled “Environmental effects on the expression of bamboos in the Western Ghats.” A promoter of bamboo for over two decades now and executive director, Bamboo Society of India (Maharashtra Chapter) he spoke to Hiren Kumar Bose on the future of green gold and issues associated with it.


We have realized only lately that bamboo holds a great promise in ensuring a livelihood not only to the farmer but the artisans too?

It’s true. In most cases, the craftsmen have been dependent on the bamboo available at the mercy of the foresters or the ones growing on private land or acquiring them from the open market. My study shows that most craftsmen are engaged in this business only during certain months, namely November to February when fresh bamboo is available. There is huge potential for this craft activity especially basket making which is still used in the villages. Now, organic farmers too are using large storage cases, made of bamboo, to store cereals and pulses.  Then there an increasing demand from the corporate and tourism sector for gift articles. At present, the craftsmen engaged in this industry are generally old people and women. Youth are not interested in this enterprise. The entire craft industry needs to be supported with common facility centres with small hand-operated or single phase operated machines. There is increasing demand for small household furniture which can be manufactured by these artisans. The Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) in order to attract the youth should start bamboo training courses in the bamboo growing areas. Surprisingly there are syllabi for providing training is available, which are updated till 2014. I believe that there is ample scope for providing employment following modernization of the bamboo artisanship.

Can bamboo be the answer to the agrarian crisis and a source of livelihood for our farmers?

Bamboo needs very less water and that too until December – January. Systematic plantation along the agriculture field, along with the newly rejuvenated water currents, along rivers and all water channels, in the catchment area of the dams and percolation tanks, even wastelands and rocky lands will help the farmers as well as the nation. Bamboo reduces soil erosion, allows water to percolate slowly and replenish the underground water too. It works on the principle of rainwater harvesting and makes water available in wells which can be used for the second crop in Rabi. Bamboo has a great advantage that it thrives well if supportive irrigation is there. But it survives even if no water is available for the prolonged period. During drought, it hibernates and again grows when it rains.

Having spearheaded the cause of bamboo since long do you think the Maharashtra Govt. decision and now Central Government’s to free the transit pass (TP) condition for bamboo grown on private land will be a shot in the arm for those who plan to grow green gold?

What was TP? It was a permit to cut and transport bamboos in the given state. This was done for the protection of forest bamboo. These permits were issued by the foresters. The farmer growing bamboo on his private land was compelled to a take permit from the Forest Dept. Foresters always treated this as the source of income. There was always harassment from the foresters from top to bottom. In Western Maharashtra (Sahyadri) and Konkan bamboo has been mainly grown on private lands for decades together. The species grown here is Managa (Dendrocalamus stocksii). It is a non-seeding bamboo and hence never naturally propagated by seeds. As it is a non-forest species it was not possible for the foresters to restrict the movement of Managa. This has helped the farmers of 8 districts of (W. Maharashtra and Konkan) to cut and transport the bamboos to the markets. These markets are from Sankeshwar to Nasik. With one rough estimate, the farmers of Pune district (Only 3 talukas namely Bhor, Velha and Mulshi) sell Rs 150 crores worth of bamboo in open market. There is a well-established system of harvesters, transporters and traders. Kolhapur has two different markets for two different varieties for very long time. If all these 8 districts together are surveyed, it will prove to be the market worth some thousand crores. In Vidarbha, Marathwada and Khandesh, unfortunately, there is no bamboo on private lands. These areas have a climatologically different than Western Maharashtra and Konkan. Due to this difference, only Manvel and Katang are the varieties grow well. These species are mainly forest grown species. Hence foresters took the disadvantage and did not allow the farmers to grow these bamboos on private lands. Even if somebody dared to do that he was caught in the TP process and not allowed to sell his bamboos. The removal of TP regime will take some time to develop the market. Farmers especially the large farmers should take the lead for development of this. It will be a slow process. But it will happen without any intervention of the govt. In fact, in my opinion, there should not be any intervention of govt in trade. The failures of crops like cotton and soybean due to adverse climatic conditions and pest attacks, the farmer is searching for alternatives. Bamboo is a good option for places in Vidarbha, Marathwada and Khandesh where rainfall is scanty.

Being strong a CO2 absorber future do we see for bamboo in urban habitats? Growing them in roadsides, parks and open spaces?

Lot has been debated on the Co2 fixation ability and carbon sequestration by bamboo. The International Network on Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) working on this. If planted along water currents flowing through the cities it will improve the water quality flowing. There are ample places in the urban areas where one can plant bamboo. So also along the highways, we can plant bamboos. If planted in city parks and open places along large roads it will be very advantageous First by providing an evergreen landscape and helping reduce the temperature in the cities. Secondly by improve the air quality and thirdly provide huge biomass and along with the biomass which can help run a power plant or alcohol plant or CNG plant bringing in additional for the local bodies.

Which are preferred bamboo varieties in Maharashtra?

There are only four varieties of bamboo grown for a long time and on large scale in Maharashtra. These are Manvel (Dendrocalamus strictus), Katang or thorny bamboo (Bambusa bambos), Managa ( Dendrocalamus stocksii), and Chivari or Ooda (Munrochloa ritchiei). Of these only, the first three are economically exploited. Then, we have some varieties introduced recently, namely Bhima (Bambusa balcooa), Burma (Dendrocalamus brandisii), Giant Burma( Dendrocalamus giganteus) and yellow bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris strata). Except for Bhima, others are yet to be tested extensively in Maharashtra.

Is it true that Bhīma is preferred in Vidarbha and Marathwada while in Konkan it is Managa?

As explained earlier the bamboos which are from forests were not allowed to cultivate on private lands, Bhīma has been introduced. It is growing well in Gadchiroli. It has limitations as far as use is concerned. It is good bamboo for the energy, alcohol or CNG production. Its yields are high. But its growth pattern restricts its use in other areas of use like construction industry. We can judge only when other varieties are planted and started flourishing the in the area. Bhīma gives higher yields when grown with irrigation. Other bamboos grown in Maharashtra are rain-fed bamboos, with irrigation these also may give good yields. Yes in Konkan and W. Maharashtra along Sahyadri Managa is preferred and it is paying. The markets are well established.

What needs to be done on the fronts of technology and resource development to strengthen the foundation of the bamboo sector?

It is always quoted that China has developed the bamboo sector very nicely. I visited China and the Anji County. It is the hilly area of south-central China which provides the bamboo products to the world. It is a temperate region. The variety is Phyllostachys sp. The area is similar to Konkan or rather Sahyadri. Here we have also only one dominant bamboo i.e. Managa.  The Chinese Govt. has encouraged researchers, farmers, industrialists by treating bamboo as an industrial crop. Due to hilly topography, there were only two options – either growing timber trees or bamboo. Being a good substitute for timber and fast growing as well as the ability to start production within 3-4 years bamboo a has been preferred. We need to emphasise that sugarcane is not the only cash crop for bamboo has bigger potential than the former. Industrialists should come forward with contract farming of bamboo. There is another hitch. Once processed only 30-40 % of bamboo can be converted into a final product. The bamboos pieces of uniform diameter (6-8 feet long) are converted into strips round sticks which can be used in ply making, lumber making or fashioning Venetian blinds. Reaming waste which is almost 70 % is a load on the cost of the final product. But all the wastes can be used for one or other products. Namely, the upper portion of bamboo (around 8-10 feet) can be utilized for support of horticultural crops. The sawdust which is a major waste in this process can be used for making the pellets or particle boards. The bottom internodes which are of odd diameter can be used for Agarbattis or chopsticks or toothpicks. The remaining portion can be used as charcoal or a firewood. In China the whole process is called the preprocessing of bamboos which are done at village level and all the parts mentioned above are delivered to the respective industry. Such kind of the mechanism needs to be developed in India. The Maharashtra Bamboo Development Board continues to be part of the forestry department. It needs to be freed to flourish. Lot of things to be done by NGOs, like Bamboo Society to popularize and develop the mindset of farmers towards bamboo and we have started these activities. At the bank level, like NABARD and other nationalized banks should start treating bamboo as a plantation crop and provide finance to the growers for the same.



Searching for Weeds

The earth has dried up but is not parched as such, because of the morning dew which ushers in the moisture every day. Rains are a two-month-old memory now for it has been that long since the monsoon receded. Now, it’s opportune moment to watch for plants and flowers you’ve not been familiar with but which have taken home in the soil.


Like the two plants, I found last week. For me, they were weeds–a plant in the wrong place is called so. But then there are soil scientists who believe that weeds arrive or sprout to take care of the soil’s deficiency. And in their own way add nutrition which the soil till recently lacked. Well, that’s the way I too think. For I’ve never sprayed pesticides to exterminate the termites which are plenty on my soil. In fact, I’ve created a congenial environment for them. Come the second week of October when the soil is still moist having received incessant downpour beginning mid-June they start chomping on the twigs and branches strewn all around. They begin covering the twig/branch with a thin film of soil creating a cocoon and slowly as the days advance it chews it away and soon thereafter the dust joins the soil.

When I found two alien plants I clicked them with my phone and sent it my botanist friend, Ajit Gokhale.

tridex procumbance
Tridax procumbens

The tiny flowering plants he identified as Tridax procumbens, also called coat buttons. The flowers are bulbous and easily snappable with long delicate stalks. Its Hindi name is Khal muriya , Tal muriya and Ghamra. While in Sanskrit it’s known as Jayanti veda.
One can find this plant along roadsides and attracts a lot of low flying butterflies. The leaf juice has wonderful wound healing properties. In fact, its Telugu name is Gayam which means wound.

The second plant is Anantmool (Hemidesmus Indicus). Try pulling it out from the soil and you’re likely to find that its roots are unending or anant.

It has a sweet smell and at times prostrate or semi-erect shrub. Its roots are woody and aromatic. The leaves are opposite, short-petioled, very variable and elliptic-oblong. Its flowers are greenish outside and purplish inside.

Anantmool is one of the Rasayana plants of ayurveda and has medicinal galore. It is used for venereal diseases, herpes, skin diseases, arthritis, gout, epilepsy, chronic nervous disorders, abdominal distention, debility etc. Its saponin content is considered to have a steroidal effect that enhances the production of testosterone.

Did you know that a face pack made of anantmool root powder and milk and applying can make your face bright and clear complexioned?


Conversations With A ZBNF Farmer

Driven in a white-coloured Volkswagen Polo you would expect an early thirties techie to play Bruno Mars, Adele or maybe Mika, if you’re  a Bollywood follower, but you’re in for a surprise as you catch a reedy voice talking about farming in an earthy Marathi. Yes, Sujay Gawand plays Padmashri recipient Subhash Palekar’s lectures on Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) as we do the two-and-half-hour long drive to his family’s farm in Murbad from Powai.

We leave behind villages named Saralgaon (the village of simple-minded folks), Tokawade (rhymes with takeaway) to reach Pendhari on the NH 222 after we have had spicy vada-pao and washed it down with jeera drink in a roadside restaurant which dots the roadsides claiming to offer you umpteen variety of dishes but has not been allowed to express their culinary skills beyond missal-pao because no one so far has asked for butter chicken!

Sujay“I have downloaded hours and hours of lectures and hear them often to catch up on the techniques of ZBNF,” says Sujay proudly, who is among the growing breed who either are hobby farmers juggling their jobs and dirtying their hands with soil or those who believe that farming is their alternative calling.  Till recently a whole time techie, Sujay having worked as a software developer in places like Connecticut and Hawai presently works as a freelancer techie and a farmer. “I am seriously into it… 80 percent into farming and the rest as a software developer,” says the man who spends three days in a week in his farm and also moonlights as a software developer for a start-up he and a friend own.

The Gawand family till about 25 years back lived in a wadi in Bhandup. “We had all sort of fruit trees, mango, chickoo, papaya etc. I still remember tasting the latex of papaya out of curiosity and spitting it soon in disgust. Thanks to creeping urbanization my father sold the wadi where now high-rise towers have come up and with the money earned acquired 18 acres in Pendhari village,” he reminiscences.

BananaFew kilometres away from Malshej ghat, farmers in Pendhari continue to grow paddy in kharif and bhindi (okra), and tur as a fence crop during rabi. Sujay has planted ‘bahuvarshik tur” which is likely to yield tur for a couple of years on 2.5 acres with various intercrops including moong and ginger. The tur plants are between 6 ft to 10 ft fed with jeevamrut and the occasional spray of dashaparni to combat the pest. “The person who sold me the seeds claimed that each plant would yield around 5kgs but I would be happy if it gave 2kgs,” says Sujay who sheds his sneakers for a gumboot as he assumes the avatar of a shetkari. “The locals laughed at me when they came to know that I was growing tur as a crop but now they come to seek my advice.”

This May and June Sujay door-delivered Haphus, Payeri and gaonthi varieties of mangoes to people in the Central suburbs and also to one family in Ville Parle. “Every time I visited my farm I lugged nearly 300 kgs of mangoes in the dickey of my car,” informs Sujay.

In fact, Ghorpade family was fortunate to have the mangoes because Sujay took matters into his hands. As family members rarely visited the farm the caretaker for decades had maintained: Kahi nahi hot. Meaning the trees hardly yielded any fruit.

Like most young urban dweller turned hobby farmer Sujay believes in the motto of share, cooperate and collaborate. Spent time with him he will provide you with hazaar ideas about crops, farming techniques, organic pesticides etc. – techniques which he has either experimented with or acquired from others experiences. Like pooling resources of like-minded farmers to concretise the floor of a local cattle owner and in turn the donor is promised complimentary cans of gomutra. Or acquiring a cow past its prime so that it doesn’t end up in a slaughterhouse. Pointing towards the new guest tethered to a tree Sujay says with pride: “That’s my new possession. Now I need not scout for gobar and gomutra.”

cowIt is always a dream of every farmer to grow paddy and next kharif season Sujay plans to sow the Indrayani variety. Once harvested he plans to leave the stubble so that he can squeeze a second crop the next season.  Being a techie Sujay’s approach to farming is like handling a project: trying to minimize the chances of human errors by researching the crop/fruit he plans to introduce, understanding the suitable weather conditions, interacting with fellow growers, accumulating information from locals etc. However, he is steadfast on the issue of never taking recourse to chemical inputs but find natural means to combat issues. Be it in search of growth promoter, fertiliser or pesticide.

Presently, in the midst of readying his plots for watermelon and pineapple, he says he is still to identify the pineapple variety he plans to zero in. “I will either go for Mauritius or Queen, not the MD2,” says he.

As he leaves me at Tokawade bus stand for a Murbad-bound bus he asks apologetically: “Hope your journey was fruitful?”

Indeed it was: for I was introduced to herbs like Akkalkada (Anacyclus Pyrethrum)—chewing the tiny flower makes the tip of the tongue grow numb for a short while; and Anantmool (Hemidesmus indicus)—the powder of its root used for skin conditions.

For an ignoramus, like me, till very recently they were just weeds.

Welcoming The Hummingbird Tree

Come rains, sorry monsoon because it’s a season, we, farmer colleagues, ask each other: What are you planting this time?

HadgaThough our plot sizes are limited we all look forward to the monsoon to take care of the vacant spots. Besides we want to create a biodiverse universe of our own. Either we plant a sapling which we acquired some time back or grow our own saplings. Last year I had acquired seeds of Hadga (Sesbania grandiflora) from a group in Bangalore, specialising in heirloom seeds. They are called Sahaja Seeds. I had sowed the seeds in the bag when the monsoon in peak. They sprouted; the seedlings were around six inches but were soon eaten away by a pest.

So this time I sowed the seeds a fortnight prior to the rains. Interestingly, all the saplings survived. After they were feet in height I planted them. Most have survived.

I’m told it will take nearly a year to flower. The flower made into fritters is a delicacy among Bongs. In fact, a Bong will pay a handsome amount to acquire flowers of Hadga, called Bak Phool in Bangla.

Among ruminants such as cattle and goats, Hadga leaves are a favourite. The leaves are a good source of green manure too. The reason, I planted them in the first place.

My Article on Safflower

Healthy Oil

Safflower cultivation sees drastic fall despite benefits

Despite its many health advantages, the cultivation of safflower for its oil is declining across India because farmers are not finding a ready market and are discouraged by the low prices it fetches


Vijay Jagtap discontinued sowing safflower (kardi) last year on his one-hectare plot in Baramati Pandhare village, 12 km from Baramati town in Maharashtra. “The price we get for kardi is not at all attractive. A mere Rs 2500 per quintal,” says the 51-year-old farmer. “Besides, engaging labor to harvest kardi is more expensive than other crops due to its spines.”

Safflower has the highest percentage of good fat and second-lowest content of bad fat. Rich in linoleic acid, it helps greatly in reducing cholesterol levels. Sadly, the urban middle class, its kitchen narrative influenced by TV cookery shows, newspaper columns penned by nutritionists and the aggressive media campaign by FMCG companies is totally unaware of the real heart-friendly oil, safflower oil.

A study, unveiled in January this year by the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition, which took into account the total polyunsaturated fatty acids (TPFA), total mono-saturated fatty acids (TMFA) and total saturated fatty acids (TSFA) in as many as 13 edible oils found safflower (kardi in Marathi, kusubi in Kannada) oil as the best cooking medium followed by sunflower oil, mustard oil and soya bean oil.

Falling cultivation

While India has emerged as the largest importer of edible oil, its farmers are abandoning the cultivation of safflower, thanks to low market demand and unattractive price offered to the growers.

In the neighboring state of Karnataka, the state that leads in safflower cultivation, a similar story unfolds. Veera Reddy (61), who owns 15 acres of land in Markunda village, off National Highway No. 65 on the way to Bidar, told VillageSquare.in, “I have been growing kusubi for several years now but discontinued it as there are not many takers for its oilseeds. As there are no oil pressers close by, I have had to ferry my crop in a lorry to Bidar, a 30 km drive from my village, to get it pressed. I would rather grow sugarcane, jowar or tur and receive a better price.”

Another farmer, Ram Kumar Prajapati (55), originally from Haryana who migrated to Gujarat’s Kutch about 18 years back and has around 90 acres of farmland in Kanakpur village in Abdasa taluka, explains his reasons for dumping safflower in flawless Gujarati. “I grew kardi on eight acres and made only Rs 8,000 per acre. Now even the ground water level has reduced further and I don’t have any irrigation facilities,” he told VillageSquare.in. “I would rather grow something which fetches more at less expense.”

Ancient crop

One of the oldest oil crops in human history that can withstand drought and low moisture, safflower has been cultivated in Andhra Pradesh as a popular fence crop. Besides the oil, the sharp-needled leaves offer a good defense against the straying cattle. Chevella in Ranga Reddy district and Parigi in Vikarabad district are major centers of safflower cultivation. But here too things have changed.

The family of Siva Kumar of Kurnaguda village who have been cultivating safflower for over three decades on 10 acres, has reduced it to a bare two acres. Explains the 53-year-old farmer: “Now hardly 10% of farmers in our village and neighboring Chevella and Bodempat villages grow safflower. We begin sowing in October end and harvest in January-February but the lack of irrigation or timely rains is the major limitation to our yield. Moreover, we are able to get a mere Rs 3000 for a quintal.”

Low returns

Unable to earn a handsome price, and with village-based ghanis (traditional oil pressers) shutting shop due to the paucity of oilseeds, farmers in the country’s arid zones in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana are discarding the cultivation of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a crop which actually doesn’t need much irrigation or care.

At present, safflower occupies the seventh place in the acreage dedicated to oilseeds in India. Maharashtra, Karnataka, along with Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, accounts for 94% of the total acreage and about 99% of the country’s production.

Drastic decline

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country had 712,500 ha (hectares) under safflower cultivation in 1996-97, but by 2014-15 it had come down to only 174,940 ha. Simultaneously, production has plummeted to 90,120 MT (metric tons) from 450,000 MT in the same period. The area under safflower cultivation has slumped by 64% since 1991, while the production has witnessed a fall by 41% during the same period. Though ranked number one in global safflower production, India produces only 29% and is followed by the US (17%), Argentina (13%), and Kazakhstan (12%).

Dwelling on the lack of enthusiasm among farmers for safflower, A. Vishnuvardhan Reddy, Director, ICAR-Indian Institute of Oilseeds Research, told VillageSquare.in, “The chief factors for the decline of safflower acreage in the country is the preference of the farmer towards gram (chickpea) primarily due to better market price, assured output market and higher farm-level output.’’

Experts opine that the major reasons for the decline are due to higher remuneration from competing for crops such as sorghum and gram, low price realization as compared to other oilseed crops, comparatively low oil content than other oilseed crops, susceptibility to various biotic and abiotic stresses such as aphids and import of cheap palm oil.  Another major cause for its decline is due to the spiny safflower breeds, which involve hiring expensive skilled laborers.

Societal interest

“Farmers need to return to safflower in the larger interests of society and for their own welfare on account of its strength to withstand drought and low moisture,” stresses plant breeder N B Gadagimath of Dharwad -based Sarpan Agri-Horticultural Research Centre, who has to his credit four promising varieties of safflower, both spiny and non-spiny ones which have been commercially tried on large plots on farmers’ field in Karnataka and suitable for mechanical harvesting using combine harvesters. In fact, farmers in Dharwad and Bijapur districts have been successfully making use of Sarpan’s non-spiny safflower varieties.

Interestingly, farmers in rain-deficient Marathwada region of Maharashtra, namely districts like Beed, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Latur, Hingoli, Jalgaon and Ahmednagar, continue to grow safflower despite getting much lesser returns than the Minimum Support Price. Here farmers hire mechanical harvesters to harvest the crop while oil pressers continue to flourish. Beside safflower farmers here grow cotton, jowar, cattle fodder, sunflower, sorghum and green gram. While green gram fetches them Rs 9,000 per quintal safflower a lowly Rs 3,000!

According to Shaji Kakasaheb Shinde, a senior safflower breeder with Mahatma Phule Agriculture University, Sholapur, “Farmers in Marathwada have continued their faith on safflower as it’s easy to grow, needs less irrigation and inputs while additionally fulfilling their need for a cheap and healthy edible oil. But it’s also due to the availability of mechanical harvesters on rent and existence of oil pressers in the neighborhood. ”

While most safflower-growing countries use the oil as a cooking medium, China for centuries has cultivated it as a dual-purpose crop growing it for medicinal purposes too. In Chinese medicine, safflower decoctions are used in combination with various other herbs and additional ingredients to treat menstrual problems, cardiovascular disease, pain and swelling associated with trauma, male sterility etc.

Manifold benefits

Value-added medicinal products from safflower seed, oil, and petals have a great potential in the pharmaceutical industry and are waiting to be tapped. In fact, the ancient Ayurvedic text, BhavaPrakash Nighantu, attributes petals of kusuma of activating the nerve system, treatment for heart arrhythmia, controlling hypertension, providing relief in muscular arthritis and joint pains, regularizing the menstrual period, improving the skin color etc.

“Safflower cultivation can provide a dual income to farmers, as the florets can easily be collected from non-spiny safflower after the crop matures and sold for food and textile dye,” Nandini Nimbkar, president of Phaltan-based, Nimbkar Agriculture Research Institute (NARI), a non-profit R&D institute engaged in the field of agriculture, renewable energy, animal husbandry and sustainable development since 1968, told VillageSquare.in. It has so far developed eight safflower varieties, both spiny and non-spiny. Its NARI 96, released this year, has 31% oil content while NARI 57, released in 2015, has 37%.

Adds Nimbkar, “The average yield of seed and flowers from NARI’s non-spiny hybrid is 2000 and 150 kg/ha, respectively. The income obtained from the flowers at Rs 800 per kg will be Rs 120,000 per hectare while that from seed would be Rs 60,000 at (at Rs 30 per kg).”

Due to the low price it commands for the growers, it’s very unlikely that safflower will ever become a popular crop among farmers but considering its medicinal and nutritional properties, a niche could be created — a fact policymakers need to take into account if the country wants to arrest its continuous decline.

A. Patil, former Director, IARI (Indian Agriculture Research Institute), strikes an interesting note, “We need to lay emphasis on safflower as secondary agriculture crop whereby products and crops residues or even the main crop is used for extraction of high-value bioactive compounds to save this vintage crop from extinction.”

Hiren Kumar Bose is a journalist based in Thane, Maharashtra. He doubles up as a weekend farmer.

Tribal Fare

I found that an early morning visit to the local subzi mandi during the beginning days of the monsoon can be revelatory.  For I came across an unknown leafy vegetable which I had never chanced upon in my life today.

The women, an adivasi, with a meagre fare of vegetables in a basket at Thane’s subzi mandi told me: It’s fodshi, we pick it from the Yeeor hills. Very tasty. You can prepare it like methi.

Wifey asked: How much?

We ended a bunch of three for Rs 20.Fodshi

Having never heard of it, I sent an image to my botanist friend, Dr. Ajit Gokhale and was told that the tribals call it kuli. Its botanical name is chlorophytum tuberosum but is generally confused with chlorophytum borivlianum, commonly known as safed musli.

According to flowersofindia.com edible chlorophytum is a herb found throughout the warmer regions of the world. The plant is about 20 cm tall, seen in gregarious clumps. Leaves are strap-shaped, 6-12, all arising from the base, 15-30 cm long. The plant blooms in June-July with the first showers of monsoon. Flowers are white, 2.5 cm across, with 6 elliptic petals. The centre of the flower has 6 erect stamens with yellow anthers. Edible Chlorophytum is also a famine food, its bulbs and leaves are eaten. Bulbs and leaves dried and pounded into flour for bread.

Writing in science20.com Ashwani Kumar, Prof Emeritus, former Head of the Department of Botany, and Director, Life Sciences, University of Rajasthan elaborates: “This is a genus of two hundred species and twelve are native to India. Organic-rich well drained sandy loamy soil and warm humid climate is suitable for its cultivation. Plants are propagated by seeds and by the division of rhizomes. Seeds remain dormant for nearly ten months. Germination of seeds takes two weeks and only about 20% of them germinate. Flowers are star-like white up to 2 cm across, sepals are acute, anthers are longer than filaments are green or yellow in colour, bracts are long. Seeds are black in colour with angular edges. The dry roots possess less than 5% moisture. It contains carbohydrates, proteins, root fibres, saponins and minerals. Dry roots of the plant constitute the drug and are used in powdered form. It is a well-known tonic and aphrodisiac and also used to treat general debility. Leaves of this plant are also eaten as a vegetable. The tubers of about 20 g are boiled with milk and taken twice a day for a month for  impotency and general weakness.”