Wild foods

Wild fruits in the Himalayas could well be an answer to the nutrition and energy requirements of the region

By Paromita Ghosh
Published: Tuesday 30 April 2002

Wild foods

-- (Credit: Photographs: Bhumesh Bharti<sc)2002: international year of the mountains, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly in its 53 rd session. In focus, therefore, is the Himal region -- Himalaya, Hindukush and Karakoram ranges -- known for its cultural and ethnic diversity, matched equally by its biodiversity. In a land of plenty live one of the poorest, most undernourished people in the South Asian region. The Indian state of Uttaranchal, situated in the Himalayan ranges, is a case in point.

Uttaranchal is largely dependent on agriculture for sustenance, and women are the backbone of the region's agricultural activity. This notwithstanding, they are the least privileged of an underprivileged lot. A scientific approach grounded in economic and social reality is the key to alleviating their condition. One such approach, increasingly gaining ground among researchers, is the promotion of locally available wild edible fruits, both as a nutrition supplement and to complement traditional cash crops.

Of the amazing number of plant varieties in the region, only 150 species of plants are used extensively. Of these, three species (wheat, maize and rice) alone supply over half of the human energy requirements. Within individual species, a small number of varieties account for much of the food produced.

Further, the number of species and varieties used in this region is narrowing as a result of the introduction of high-yielding varieties and the controversial genetically modified (gm) crops. Though the benefits of these crops, in terms of production, are undeniable, many species that could be used to develop plants adapted to local conditions and needs are being lost. It is in this scenario that the need to promote and popularise the cultivation of locally available wild edible fruit trees gains significance.

A number of non-traditional fruits are as good a source of nutrients as traditional fruits. In view of the fact that they are more accessible and affordable than traditional fruits, non-traditional fruits could well be a solution to the problem of malnutrition. These fruits are easier to cultivate and are naturally hardy, requiring less intensive care.

So far, only one wild edible fruit available in this region has been studied in depth. Scientists P P Dhyani andU Dhar of the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Develop-ment, Almora, studied Myrica esculenta (box myrtle), locally known as kaiphal, in 1994. Dhyani and Dhar studied the local usage of the fruit, its nutritional value and economic potential. This study led to an attempt to further popularise the fruit and probe its value as a cash crop through production of kaiphal jam, squash and syrup.

Heartening though this effort is, it only touches the tip of the iceberg. The Himalayas are home to many non-traditional fruits with unexplored trade potential and nutritional value. To name just a few: Himalayan yellow raspberry (Rubus ellipticus), wild apricots (Prunus armeniaca), jangli seb (Malus baccata), amlok (Diospyros lotus) and dhurchuk (Hippophae rhamnoides).

The tasty Rubus ellipticus, for example, grows in abundance in this region. It is an evergreen shrub, with juicy fruits that contain a very high percentage of extractable juice, and taste quite like raspberry. There is virtually no cultivation cost involved, and is a good source of extra income for farmers. These fruits are particularly rich in Vitamin C (38 mg per 100 gm of edible portion), with a high content of calcium (22 mg) as well.

The wild apricot or Prunus armeniaca is a common fruit of the hills. This pulpy fruit has a number of medicinal properties. Though the fruit is rarely as sweet as the cultivated type, it is especially good for chutneys and jams. The local people also make a sort of alcoholic beverage with this fruit. Wild apricots are also a rich source of nutrition, being especially rich in protein (1.4 gm).

The local people are by and large aware of the nutritional and medicinal properties of these fruits. Figs (Ficus carica), for example, are a delicious and nutritious fruit. They are rich in calcium (22 mg), iron (2.5 mg) and vitamin C (3.6 mg). Unusually enough for fruits, figs also have a high fibre content. Fresh or dried, it is valued for its laxative properties. Similarly, various local berries are used as antiseptics, diuretics, anti-inflammatory, anti-hyperglycaemic and anti-carcinogenic.

The wild fruit that has found its way to economic importance is the Punica granatum, known as wild pomegranate. The seeds of this fruit are dried in the sun to make anardana, which imparts a sour taste to chutneys and other preparations. The fruit is also locally used for stomach ailments. They are also a good source of nutrients, particularly rich in minerals and protein (1.6 gm). The calcium (10 mg), phosphorus (70 mg) and vitamin C (16 mg) content is also good. The Punica granatum presents considerable economic potential, and it would be worthwhile for the state government to undertake research into increasing the yield of this fruit through pest control, and devising better dehydration techniques to increase the quantities of anardana that reach the market.

The production of wild fruits could be increased by cultivating them in wastelands, and adopting them in agro-forestry management systems. In fact, cultivating them with nitrogen-fixing trees could be an efficient production technology to make the commercial cultivation of non-traditional fruit trees feasible. There are compelling reasons for popularising non-traditional fruits. Local fruits are cheaper than traditional fruits, and are available for domestic consumption. Additionally, the surplus from domestic consumption could be disposed of as a source of income. Cultivation of non-traditional fruits is neither cash-intensive, nor labour intensive. Most importantly, these fruits could well be an answer to the energy and nutrition requirements of the over-worked and under-nourished women in the Himalayas.

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