Be it the north or the south of India, this bunchgrass with a scent helps in varied ways
I still remember those thick blinds that kept my home cool, while filling it with a sweet earthy aroma during one scorching Delhi summer in the early 1970s. My parents had bought the blinds to hang on the doors. They were made of roots and stems of khus, a perennial bunchgrass known for its water holding capacity. Every afternoon my siblings would sprinkle water over the mats and soon, the cool and calming fragrance would lull us all to sleep.
But it was a messy affair. Water dripping from the blinds would often flow into the room. Sleeping with the doors and windows open to catch the breeze was also not particularly safe. So, the khus-blinds were soon discarded, and we found solace in the bright green khus sharbat, which is prepared from the same roots and is equally aromatic and refreshing as the blinds.
Khus or Vetiveria zizanioides is native to India. It belongs to Poaceae family which includes India’s staple food grain, wheat, and grows wild in the northern states. In southern states, farmers cultivate it as a commercially traded grass—its scientific name, in fact, comes from the Tamil name for the grass, vettivar.
Though every part of the grass is useful, khus is most valued for its roots, which are used to extract one of the most complex oils known. It contains some 150 aromatic molecules, many of which are yet to be identified.
Extraction of the oil is, however, fairly simple. First chop the roots and leave the pieces in water for about 24 hours. Then distil the extract to separate the oil from water. It is viscous and has low volatility which makes it useful as a perfume. The recovery of oil ranges from 0.3 to 0.6 per cent among north Indian cultivars and between 0.6 and 1.0 per cent among south Indian cultivars.
One can follow the process to prepare khus sharbat at home as most sharbats available in the market have artificial dye added to it (see recipe).
The food industry has a huge demand for khus essential oil. Apart from sharbats, the flavour and fragrance industry uses it to produce chewing tobacco, paan masala, soaps, perfumes and cosmetics. It is part of pharmaceuticals used to treat skin diseases and prevent stretch marks. The oil is also useful to strengthen the central nervous system and treat depression, anxiety, stress and insomnia.
Traditional healers prescribe the extract of its roots for its properties related to cooling, digestive and regulation of immune system. Diluted vetiver oil is good for cleaning and dressing infected wounds. When inhaled with steam, vetiver oil is good for curing fever and respiratory diseases. The oil also purifies blood and is used in ayurvedic medicines like nishakathakadi kashayam that strengthen the urinary system. It is also useful to treat diabetes, and rasnadi churnam applied to scalp can treat headaches. Beds made of khus root are good for patients suffering from rheumatism and back pain. Hair oil infused with its roots have a cooling effect and prevents hair fall. The roots are often kept along with clothes to repel insects.
However, these are not the only benefits of khus. The grass has a root system, which can go in as deep as 4 metres. This root system not only promotes water conservation through groundwater recharge but also prevents soil erosion during extreme rainfall and flash floods. They are thus used for stabilising soil along the riverbanks, canals, drainage channels, around ponds and also along the steep contour lines of hills.
In Kerala, the grass is extensively grown in the littoral sandy soil to protect the coastal areas from sea level rise. In Karnataka, it is common to find clumps of this grass in and around the field in areas with heavy clay soil. These soils are usually difficult to work with as they get waterlogged during the rains and crack in the dry season. Khus grass ensures that pools of standing water do not form on the land. By ensuring even distribution of water, it helps maximise its use.
Of late, scientists are realising some more powers of khus. One such is sequestration of atmospheric carbon. A comparison of khus with several others plants like teak, poplar and eucalyptus by the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation, Bengaluru, demonstrated that vetiver is more efficient at sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The comparison was published in 2011.
Its deep roots are useful for soil and water remediation as it can tolerate high levels of nitrates, phosphates, heavy metals and agricultural chemicals. Farmers can use the leaves for mulching and preparing organic manure. Even the roots, after extraction of oil, are useful as it can be turned to cardboard and paper. Small wonder, khus is now being promoted globally as a crop that can help adapt and mitigate climate change.
Communities also see business opportunity in this. Its strong and long roots are the perfect choice of artisans for making crafts like mats, fans, screens, pillows, baskets and chappals. But digging out the roots is not an easy task. To help farmers extract the entire root system, the Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Lucknow, has recently developed an efficient, low-cost khus root digging implement, which it says can reduce the digging cost by 80 per cent. Let’s hope it helps prom ote the propagation of this truly green grass.
RECIPE: KHUS KA SHARBAT
• Khus roots: 50 g
• Sugar: 500 g
• Water: 1 litre
While fresh roots are better for preparing the sharbat, one can also use dried roots that are easily available in the market. Clean the roots well to remove dirt. Chop them into small pieces. Soak in water overnight. Next day, boil the roots along with the water for five minutes for extraction of flavour and fragrance. Sieve to remove the roots. Transfer the extract to a thick bottom vessel and add sugar to it. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes to prepare a thick syrup. Cool and store it in a glass bottle. While serving, take of small amount of syrup and add water to it to get the sweetness you desire. The syrup can be stored in refrigerator for at least 15 days.
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