Wildlife & Biodiversity

COVID-19 lockdown impacts rhododendron flower collection in Uttarakhand

The collection of rhododendron flowers has reduced 60-70 per cent this year because of the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

 
The demand for rhododendrons by food processing units usually results in economic trade not just within Uttarakhand but also in metros across India Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has impacted plucking and collection of rhododendron flowers — used to make juices and herbal medicines — in Uttarakhand.

Rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum), commonly known as burans in Uttarakhand, is the state’s official tree.

The peak time of flowering is between February and April every year. The collection of rhododendron flowers is linked to the livelihood of the locals, who sell them either as flowers or processed juice.

There is a huge loss in collection of rhododendron flowers because of the lockdown, said Ram Kisan Dabral of Chopdiyalgaon, a farmer and entrepreneur from Tehri Garhwal. The collection has reduced 60-70 per cent this year, he said.

The demand for rhododendrons by food processing units usually results in trade, not just within Uttarakhand, but also in metropolises across India.

The rhododendron is also sought after by the pharmaceutical industry. At the local level, however, activity is limited only to collecting flowers, the sweet and sour taste of which is the reason for preparing squash, jams, jellies and local brews.

It is a common, refreshing appetizer, is considered a tonic for heart patients and also consumed to prevent high altitude sickness. Fresh petals are also used to prepare chutney (a kind of paste consumed with other food items). Rhododendron flowers have religious and cultural values as well.

Its leaves are traditionally used to treat headaches, while its bark is used to get relief from cough and dysentery, according to locals. Raw flowers are also a local delicacy.

Rhododendron is found in the eastern to western Himalayan regions and belongs to the Ericaceae family. The word rhododendron is derived from the Greek word rhodo which means rose and dendron which means tree. It is a small to moderate height evergreen tree, generally found at an elevation of 1,700-2500 metres.

Commercial potential

The common associates of the rhododendron tree are Quercus leucotricophora, Myrica esculenta, Lyonia ovalifolia and Cedrus deodara. Several small entrepreneurs and investors, non-profits and government food processing units are engaged in attempts to explore the potential of rhododendron for strengthening local economy and livelihood.

It is considered a high value Himalayan indicator species with its ecological and economic significance. Rhododendron products are not well known beyond the hills.

There is high commercial potential in this rhododendron species for a natural forest-based production system and the creation of a unique product with a strong geographical link. An individualistic business approach in Uttarakhand, however, reduces its commercial potential.

Small factory owners produce rhododendron juice, but it is not of a high quality, primarily due to poor infrastructure and difficulty in processing. 

Rhododendron requires specific environmental conditions and plant associations to thrive. Anthropogenic pressure to collect the flowers of this species has resulted in poor natural regeneration.

The COVID-19 lockdown, however, may be considered good for natural regeneration due to poor flower plucking in this period. This may result in a good regeneration in the subsequent season. This is, however, another area of study.

Changing weather patterns and reduced snowfall led to early blooming of the flowers during February-April, the season of the rabi crop harvest as well as new crop sowing at high altitudes.

Untimely bloom was already a worry for the state’s residents for many years, with the lockdown aggravating the situation.

This species generally regenerates through seeds. Propagation by vegetative means is low. It is suggested that more than 60-65 per cent flowers in a tree should not be plucked in a season. COVID-19 likely helped in this context.

Rhododendron has great socio-ecological relevance and provides a large array of ecosystem services that need to be protected. It is an established fact that agriculture in the Himalayan region is rain-fed, mixing of tree with agriculture crops like rhododendron helps in soil and moisture conservation, a boon for the region.

There is also scope to make the local community, non-profits and community-based organisations involved in the production system that includes rhododendron regeneration, plantation, use and marketing.

Van (forest) Panchayat is a unique model in Uttarakhand that effectively managed forests for a long time, but with time, forest communities need capacity building, specifically trained for rhododendron conservation.

There are, however, constraints in collection, with the forest department allowing collection only for for subsistence and not for any commercial purposes.

With a reducing rhododendron tree population in natural forests due to anthropogenic pressure, it is alarming to supply flowers every year without a proper regeneration plan for the species.

The forest management aspects to revegetate the species in natural areas include creating in situ conservatories along with production forests.

Government initiatives

Another aspect is promoting planation drives for rhododendron in revenue and van panchayat lands under joint forest management or carbon sequestration projects.

Though the Uttarakhand forest department prioritises rhododendron plantation, this needs to increase in pace.

The development of professional and managerial aptitude in burans juice units that belong to the state government-run Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation with a branding approach and quality control is needed.

Rhododendron flowers are natural and organic so processing chemical-free juice and other products can fetch high values targeting the export market with quality produce.

The promotion of cottage industries with proper branding of the produce are some measurers that can give the sector a boost.

Processing and selling the juice with their individual branch shows the producer is not integrated.

With an individualistic approach, the market fluctuates and does not provide quality. Though it has significant nutritious and medicinal value, rhododendron juice does not either have a big market share or much support from the government.

Every factory owner has their own local brand that is not popular outside individual districts, as there is no big brand in the market. Cold storage facilities are also not available. People, however, employ traditional zero-energy chambers that keep the product for a month in underground rooms.

New technologies for processing juice and doing away with current non-machine processes is required to raise the quality of juice according to national and international standards.

It is found that large industries cannot start in hilly areas because of geographical barriers. Connectivity either by road or cable / ropeway in hills is needed for quick transportation.

There is a lot of potential to build a strong rhododendron-based small-scale industry that will help in employment and wealth generation.

The current COVID-19 pandemic resulted in more miseries to hill folk and low utilisation of forest resources. The alternative approach is to collect dry flowers for colorants and other product preparations.

Losses can be minimised and a small livelihood base can be added in this critical situation for poor families with collective efforts from the state government.

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