A tree grows in Uttarakhand

If right cultivation and marketing strategy is used, the ‘exotic’ fruit can change the deteriorating health scene in hilly regions

rajshekhar

Rajshekhar Pant | March 23, 2016 | Bhimtal


#Uttarakhand   #Avocado   #Horticulture  

In April 1986, my father C Pant, who lives in Bhimtal, a small town 20 km downhill from Nainital, got three bagged saplings of avocados from Australia. Being a plant lover, a passion which he claims to have inherited (his father had introduced litchi in this region from far-off Darbhanga), Pant planted these avocados in a stony and hardly fertile patch of his garden where once there was a stable. Of the three saplings planted, one was eaten by a stray cow and of the remaining, as luck would have it, one turned out to be hass and the other alligator or pear avocado – supposed to be one of the best of their genre. These two trees, around 30 years old now, produce over a thousand fruits every year. Pant, now a nonagenarian, consumes an avocado a day invariably in his breakfast from the month of September to May-June. He says that these fruits can either be picked as and when required or can also be shelved for a week before they are ready to eat. Despite advanced age and a history of knee replacement, Pant shows no signs of physical weakness or senility. Every day, he takes his dogs for a walk, feeds the goldfish in the pond, prunes the plants and does all his personal work without any assistance. He gives credit for his normal health and agility to the twin avocado trees. 

Avocados are new to the central Himalayan region where apples, peaches, plums and apricots are grown abundantly. Hardly anyone knows about this fruit and its exceptional nutritional value. Avacado is aptly called ‘the best gift from the new world’. A small number of growers in Jeolikot region near Nainital call it ‘makkhan phal’ as it is the only fruit with fat content.

A small story about avacado from Almora, in Kumaon Himalayas, will be interesting to readers. A tenant living in the house of the Joshis had casually planted an avocado tree in their kitchen garden decades back. Long after the tenant was gone the tree bore its first fruit. The Joshis were wondering whether it is edible. After much deliberations, the  fruit was cut into a number of pieces – one each for every member of the family. After a quick recitation of 1-2-3, all the members ate the fruit, thinking that the family should live or die together.

Despite its successful cultivation, avocado hasn’t yet been able to carve a place for itself in the fruit basket of the central Himalayas, probably because of its taste that is somewhat closer to a mix of the boiled egg yolk and walnut kernel. The climate of this region is conducive for growing avocados. Scientists say that given its nutritional value, avocado can become the poor man’s tree. It can become a boon to the malnourished hill folks and help them lead disease-free and healthy life.

Avacado is believed to have come to south India from the tropical America via Sri Lanka in the early 20th century. Its commonly grown varieties, purple and green, were introduced in India in 1941. Today it is grown in the isolated pockets of Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and the hilly regions of Sikkim. It is a rich source of protein, fibre, major antioxidants, and helps prevent a stroke. It is also used as baby food. A single avocado fruit contains about twice our daily needs for vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene as its calorie proportion. Rich in copper and iron, the twin mineral constituents of antioxidants and enzymes, it has the highest potassium rates in tropical and non-tropical fruits and vegetables. Around 400 mg of potassium, which reduces the stroke risk by 40 percent, is obtained in less than half of an avocado fruit. It is the only fruit that contains monounsaturated fats, essential for proper growth and development and help maintain cholesterol levels. One half of a hass avocado contains a significant percentage of the daily nutritional needs of children aged between 7 to 10 years.

 Hass, fuerte and green varieties are promising for the central Himalayan region. These varieties are cultivated in Sikkim where the soil is deficient in nitrogen, zinc and boron. The trees are fed with manure and micronutrients routinely to compensate the deficiency. The soil in Uttarakhand has no such limitations. Pant says that till date he has not used any manure, fertiliser, pesticide on trees and never watered them. Proudly showing a bed of 20-odd saplings along a slope in his orchard, he would water these for two-three years as these are planted in a rocky slope. “It [avocado] is otherwise a classic case of just plant and forget,” he says. Conditions favourable for cultivating avocado are: Soil ph ranging between 5 and 7; altitude between 800 and 1,600 metres; average rainfall around 2,000 mm; temperature between 10 and 30 degree Celsius. Hot and dry winds of north Indian plains, water logging and improper drainage are few unfavourable conditions for avocados. Thus, the river valleys and hilly slopes of the central Himalayan region are an ideal choice for growing an exotic fruit like avocado effortlessly. Interestingly, avocados become mature in Uttarakhand hills in September and can be harvested till May-June. In southern India the crop gets over by July-August and in Sikkim by October. As there is no organised market for this fruit in India, avocado is available in shopping malls or the high-end green grocery stores in metro cities where they are for Rs 300 to Rs 450 per piece.

It can be easily grown with seeds, though the horticultural research centre at Kallar in Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu has also tried layering and inarching successfully. In West Bengal, clip budding is also successful. All India Avocado Producer Association, a Nashik-based body, has been trying to develop the fruit through tissue culture and get improved germplasm from abroad.

People living in central Himalayas, a region where avocados can offer nutritional security at little cost, are unaware of its uses. The horticulture department of Uttrakahnd is yet to own it and the University of Pantnagar has only recently planted a few saplings to see its potential. Apart from nutritional qualities, an avocado tree is also a good soil binder, thus an antidote to soil erosion and landslides. Avocado needs to be popularised among the the hill people so that it fills the gap between deteriorating health parameters and availability of food.

This article has been written as part of CSE Media Fellowship.

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