Tantalising wait: Will India be able to harvest its own ‘heeng’

As Himalayan farmers grow the country’s first asafoetida plants, changing weather threatens to play spoilsport

By Raju Sajwan
Published: Saturday 11 December 2021
Ferula assa-foetida
Ferula assa-foetida grows in cool but dry conditions. Seeds are sown before snowfall in October-November, require intense direct sunlight and only 100-350 mm of water (Photographs: Raju Sajwan) Ferula assa-foetida grows in cool but dry conditions. Seeds are sown before snowfall in October-November, require intense direct sunlight and only 100-350 mm of water (Photographs: Raju Sajwan)

The 30-odd saplings at Moti Lal’s farm seem inconspicuous. But he knows that in four years, these saplings on his half-a-hectare (ha) farm, located in the deep Lahaul valley of Himachal Pradesh and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, could nearly double his annual earnings of Rs 2 lakh. “That is only if they survive,” says Lal, a resident of Margaraon village of Lahaul.

He is growing Ferula assafoetida, a perennial herb valued for its resin asafoetida (heeng), as part of an initiative by the Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (IHBT), Palampur.

“While handing over the saplings in October 2020, the officials said we would be the first in the country to grow heeng and can earn Rs 20,000-30,000 per kg of the spice,” Lal says.

Although asafoetida has a long history of use in India, both as a flavouring agent and folk medicine, every pinch of it is imported from central and east Asia whose cold arid regions offer a suitable environment for the plant to thrive even in the wild.

In 2019-20, India imported about 1,540 tonnes of unprocessed asafoetida from Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan for Rs 942 crore; 90 per cent of it was from Afghanistan, according to IHBT.

The process of growing the spice indigenously began in 2018, when the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi, procured seeds from Iran.

Since the seeds of F assafoetida fail to show good germination in a non-native environment and have prolonged dormancy, IHBT at its institute in Palampur conducted a series of trials, using chilling and hormonal treatments, to cut short this period.

“We have achieved 60-70 per cent seed germination,” says Sanjay Kumar, director, IHBT.

In 2020, the institute partnered with the Center for High Altitude Biology (CeHAB) in Ribling, Lahaul and Spiti, to distribute the saplings on a trial basis to farmers in the cold deserts of Himachal Pradesh that have the same climate conditions as Iran.

“By now, we have planted F assafoetida over 3.5 ha in Himachal Pradesh (Lahaul and Spiti, Mandi, Kullu, Kinnaur and Chamba districts), Uttarakhand (Chamoli), Ladakh (Ranbirpur, Leh) and Jammu and Kashmir (Kistwar, Doda and Rajouri districts),” says Ashok Kumar, senior scientist at the agro-technology division of IHBT.

Ferula assa-foetida grows in cool but dry conditions. Seeds are sown before snowfall in October-November, require intense direct sunlight and only 100-350 mm of water

Farmers, however, are not as upbeat as they were in the beginning. Lal, for instance, had planted 60 saplings on his farm, where he grows vegetables.

“The saplings sprouted new leaves in March this year, but started losing them within a few months. By September, all the plants had shed leaves and 30 had perished,” says Lal, adding that he has planted four more in October this year.

On the farm of Santosh, another farmer in Margaraon, only three of the 30 saplings planted in October last year survive. In June this year, she planted 50 more plants of F assafoetida.

Most of them, barring 18, have withered. “The ones still standing keep dropping their leaves prematurely. I am not sure if they will survive for five years to exude asafoetida,” says Santosh.

Taking roots

Ferula assafoetida is a soft-stemmed plant that grows up to 1.5 m in height and has dissected leaves with carrot-like roots. After five years, when the plant starts flowering around May, its stem is cut close to the crown and the root is laid bare. It exudes a milky substance called oleo gum resin, which is allowed to dry until it turns pale yellow or brown and then scraped off. The process is repeated every four to five days until the exudation ceases. These scrapings have a strong pungent smell. To turn it into an edible spice, the raw extract is mixed with wheat or rice flour. One plant produces 20 to 25 grams of asafoetida. While its price depends on the quality, 1 kg of pure asafoetida is sold up to Rs 25,000 and 1 ha can earn about Rs 10 lakh every five years.

Ashok claims that over 60 per cent of the saplings distributed under the initiative have survived. While at some places the plants have withered because farmers have failed to follow instructions, extreme weather has played a spoilsport in Lahaul and Spiti.

F assafoetida grows in cool but dry conditions. “Heavy and continuous rainfall is likely to affect crop growth adversely. It requires an annual average rainfall of 250-300 mm,” notes a review article, published online in the Journal of Applied and Natural Science December 9, 2020.

Though the plant can tolerate temperatures up to 35 degrees Celsius, it requires abundant sunshine and thrives in a temperature varying from 10-20°C. But all these factors that made the Himalayan districts suitable for growing F assafoetida are fast changing.

In April this year, Himachal Pradesh received untimely snowfall.

“Unlike winter snowfall that freezes immediately, snowfall in late spring melts quickly, increasing soil moisture. At the same time, extreme rainfall events are rising. This excess water definitely had a detrimental effect on the plants,” explains Sudarshan Bapsa, president of the Lahaul Potato Growers Association.

On July 27, the area around Margaraon witnessed the heaviest rainfall over a period of 24 hours in recorded history. “Only time will tell if the sensitive plant will survive here,” Bapsa says.

IHBT officials, however, are not giving up hope. Ashok says to ensure that the snow-melt moisture runs off or evaporates, the institute is asking farmers to plant F assafoetida along the slope towards the south of the mountains, where the sun’s rays fall directly.

This was first published in the 1-15 November, 2021 edition of Down To Earth

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.