Waiting in the wings

Attempts at conserving fruit germplasm as well as creating a market for lesser-known varieties have been far from satisfactory. Also, a whole lot of fruits are yet to be sampled

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Waiting in the wings

Besides diversity in minor fruits like aonla, ber, bael, custard apple, jamun, phalsa, tamarind and karonda, there are other tropical fruits that are yet to be exploited and their genetic base explored and enhanced. These include barhal (Artocarpus lakoocha), chironji (Buchanania lanzan), dillenia (Dillenia indica), makhana (Euryale ferox), manasari (Mimusops elengi), rose apple (Syzygium jambos), hogplum (Spondias pinnata) and tropical almond (Terminalia catappa) (see box: Makhana, more of a medicine). Besides, there are fruits specific to ecosystems - the Himalaya and the Thar desert, for instance.

The great Indian desert, Thar, is a contradiction. Locally known as marusthali - the land of death - this hostile environment, however, has been home to one of the finest biodiversity in India. As the local saying goes, "Marwar mein, barah kos mein, boli, jeev aur vanaspati thodi badle" (in Marwar, every 36 kilometres, the dialect, flora and fauna change), this diversity, extending to fruits, is remarkable. However, the desert awaits people to savour its fruit varieties, and its fruits are in dire need of conservation, (see table: Desert fruits).

The Garhwal Himalaya is an important source of wild fruits, growing abundantly along the altitudinal gradient. Though rich in proteins and carbohydrates, these fruits are yet to be considered as a food source. They also have the potential to be commercially processed into jellies, jams, squashes and sauces. This will not only increase the earnings of local communities but also help in conservation. "There are 36 varieties of edible figs, some of which are native, to the Himalayas. These figs could be used to make excellent jams," says A N Purohit, director, High Altitude Plant Physiology Research Centre at Srinagar, Garhwal. "Of the total 190 Berberis (kingora) species, 13 are found in India, mostly in this region," says R K Maikhuri, scientist at the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development at Garhwal. "It's unfortunate that the fruits of almost alt wild plants which grow in the Himalaya are wasted, in spite of their medicinal and commercial worth. Efforts to improve them are negligible," he adds.

State of the riches
Germplasm forms the basis for collection and conservation of any fruit species, most importantly, for future breeding programmes where breeders look for desired traits in a particular fruit. Several attempts at conserving germplasm in gene banks have been far from satisfactory. "This problem is particularly true for fruits from the Northeast," says Chadha (see box: Fruits of Mizoram: a lost case).

An assessment of 32 indigenous fruits to check erosion of diversity that has taken place in the wild as well as in cultivated species had nothing good to state. There is evidence of erosion in all varieties with "medium" erosion in 50 per cent of cultivated fruits and "high" erosion in the rest. As for fruits growing in the wild, 56 per cent are facing "medium" erosion and 44 per cent "high" erosion. The fruits that were assessed include banana, citrus, mango, aonla, amra, wood apple, bael, and plantain, her, fig, jackfruit, jalpai, jamun, karonda and khirni. "The genetic erosion of a number of indigenous fruits has been high," admits Mathura Rai of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi.

Absence of a central germplasm management system to co-ordinate field gene banks in various places is taking its toll on conservation efforts (see table: Losing colour). Confusion over germplasm synonyms - bananas, for instance - is yet to be sorted out. Reliable characterisation of the different species and varieties based on biochemical and genetic parameters are yet to be carried out in the Northeast. A 40 per cent decline in the mango germplasm collection at the Institute of Subtropical Horticulture, Lucknow, has been reported. And if this is the state of major fruits, like banana and mango, the plight of the minor ones may well be imagined.

There is no delineation between base collections which act as a sort of insurance, and working collections which are used for research and breeding purposes. Unsupported by data giving the profile of the plant collected and subsequently stored, proper utilisation of the data in the future will certainly be a problem.

Realising the potential of commercial crops, farmers are shifting over to economically viable varieties of fruits, not necessarily native, which have a ready market. This has been observed in the case of the declining citrus groves in the north-eastern states and the old mango orchards of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, Virtually no markets exist for minor fruits besides the place where it is found, and there is no encouragement from the horticulture department.

The intimate relation between native communities and bio-diversity is underestimated, too. Locally useful diversity has not been assessed to promote socio-economic gains to indigenous communities living in diversity-rich areas. Through the decades, these communities have been growing an array of species, gathered valuable information on conservation, use of resources, and have also understood their useful traits. Such information is helpful in assessing potentially useful germplasm, trends in domestication and cultivation of local species. Local knowledge on the use and conservation of native diversity is poorly documented. It not as if only the scientists were responsible for improving the varieties of certain fruits. Chaddha recalls two varieties of disease-resistant grapes that were developed by indigenous communities in Maharashtra. The Tas-e-Ganesh variety of grapes was produced by a farmer. Created from Thompson seeds, the quality of the raisins as well as the shape of the fruit is of high quality. Another farmer from Sangli, Maharashtra, worked on the impressive Russian Kishmish Chorni variety using a plant regulator, gibrellic acid and came up with a highly-sought seedless sharad grapes. The grapes are much larger, attractive and taste better.

R K Arora, co-ordinator (retd), International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, sums'up the current status. "Not all tropical fruits' diversity is well-collected. Under-utilised species and wild relatives are poorly represented in terms of conservation, evaluation and documentation of what has been collected. Proper assessment of the genetic diversity is not carried out. Maintenance and conservation is a problem. Wild type diversity is being lost due to habitat deterioration, changes in land-use practice and crop diversification programmes. Documentation and dissemination of information leading to better utilisation of information is required."

Losing colour
Genetic erosion status of some fruits
COMMON NAME GENUS NIS CS DS GVS GES CP
Aonla Embilica 2 C
W
R
R
H
H
H
H
H
H
Bael Aegle 1 C
W
R
R
H
H
M
H
M
H
Banana and Plantain Musa 16 C
W
W
W
H
H
L
H
M
H
Jackfruit Artocarpus 19 C
W
R
R
H
H
H
H
H
H
Ber Zizyphus 20 C
W
R
R
H
H
M
M
M
M
Chiraunji Buchanania 2 C
W
R
R
M
H
M
M
M
M
Citrus Citrus 18 C
W
W
W
H
H
H
H
H
H
Fig Ficus 75 C
W
R
R
H
H
H
H
H
H
Tamarind Tamarindus 1 C
W
C
W
H
H
H
H
H
H
India almond Terminalia 12 C
W
C
W
M
M
H
H
H
H
Jamun Sizygium 75 C
W
C
W
H
H
M
M
M
M
Karonda Carissa 12 C
W
W
W
M
M
M
M
M
M
Ker Capparis 26 C
W
C
W
H
H
M
M
M
M
Khejri Prosopis cineraia 1 W R H M M
Lasora Cordia 18 C
W
R
R
M
H
M
M
M
M
Mahuwa Madhuca 8 C
W
W
W
H
H
H
H
H
H
Mango Mangifera 5 C
W
W
W
H
H
M
H
M
H
Mangosteen Garcinia 24 C
W
R
R
H
H
H
H
H
H
Mulberry Morus 5 C
W
W
W
H
H
M
M
M
M
Phalsa Grewia 43 C
W
W
W
M
M
M
M
M
M
NIS: Number of indigenous species; CS: Cultivated status (C-cultivated, W-wild); DS: Distribution status (W-widely distributed, R-regional, L-localised); GVS: Germplasm variability status (H-high, M-medium, L-low); GES: Germplasm erosion status (H-high, M-medium, L-low); CP: Collection priority (H-high, L-low)
Source: NDPGR, New Delhi

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