Scottish botanist Francis Buchanan brought the wild pepper to public attention in his celebrated tome. People harvested the Queen of Spices which grew in abundance in the Western Ghats. Manjunath Hegde Bomnalli finds that remnants of the vines continue to thrive in the region, albeit with diminished importance.
Physician, geographer and botanist Francis Buchanan (basically a Scottish physician) witnessed wild pepper growing spontaneously in the evergreen forests in and around Kattige village, when he arrived at this hamlet on March 9, 1801 and moved towards Yellapur the next day. In his book A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar (Volume III), Buchanan has mentioned that these forests were called as menasukans (pepper forests) by the localites.
Since then, much water has flowed in Kali river basin where Kattige and surrounding villages in Yellapur taluk of Uttara Kannada district (erstwhile North Kanara district) are situated. Over the years, impenetrable forests were disturbed for extracting valuable timber. Monoculture teak plantations came up, dams submerged forest areas and forest fragmentation took place due to increased population and farming activities, before serious efforts of forest conservation began a few decades after Independence. In this period, the area covered by evergreen forest started diminishing and degrading, and wild pepper (piper hookeri) and another spice, the malabar nutmeg (myristica dactyloides), which grow spontaneously in the wild started hiding inside the remaining patches of evergreen forests.
However, the same old Kattige village (spelled as Cutaki by Buchanan) still enjoys the privilege of having the relics of pre-colonial forest with a considerable number of wild pepper vines and malabar nutmeg trees in some stretches of forest land in and around the village. But, the word menasukan has disappeared from the minds of people here, as the wild pepper as a commercial commodity lost the race before the cultivated varieties of pepper when horticulture activities expanded.
The forest where wild pepper is seen even today is called as Karibetta (dark forest) by the residents of Kattige village, as the forest is so dense that the greenery here is also dark in hue. Some forest dwellers in this region still collect wild pepper and malabar nutmeg, but just to have an additional source of income.
Buchanan had stated that such pepper forests existed at several parts covered by the hills of Western Ghats in Uttara Kannada district and farmers not only cultivated pepper in areca plantations, but also maintained wild pepper vines and collected wild pepper from menasukans. Even after 212 years of his account, wild pepper can be seen in some patches of the evergreen forests of Kali, Bedti, Aghanashini and Sharavati river valleys in the district today.
Since antiquity, Kanara region was known for its pepper – “queen of spices” – both wild and cultivated, and from here, pepper was being exported to Egypt, Rome and other places in Before Christ (BC) centuries as well. Later, the Portuguese called Rani Channabhairadevi of Gerusoppa as Queen of Pepper, and it is said that she promoted the collection of wild pepper from the kans, which contributed a considerable share to the pepper production in the region. Sonda was another province which was producing both wild and cultivated pepper. Uttara Kannada district itself was sometimes considered as pepper queen.
Buchanan’s accounts give details of not only forests, but also the entire lifestyle in the district when the British took over the region. He has written pages together about wild pepper and its management in menasukans for better yield. The 1883 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency (Kanara) also discusses about wild pepper and its management.
But both of them observe that the yield and quality of wild pepper were inferior compared to the cultivated pepper. When it comes to The Karnataka State Gazetteer (Uttara Kannada district) published in 1985, not much attention is given to wild pepper, indicating that it had already lost importance by that time.
“If wild pepper is economically viable, it would have been under threat at present. We are not calling tenders for the collection of wild pepper or the malabar nutmeg (Ram Patre).
Since 1980s, conservation of forests gained momentum, and at present, existing evergreen forests have no major threat, as green felling is stopped and illegal felling is checked,” says Deputy Conservator of Forests (Yellapur) B Venkatesh.
Though with very few takers for commercial purpose now, wild pepper still lives proudly in the “darkness” of the wild, as an indicator of the health of the tropical evergreen forest which is a treasure trove of biodiversity.
Most of the villagers who are in the vicinity of wild pepper and even some environmentalists opine that wild pepper is disease-resistant and it can be used to prevent the diseases which are damaging cultivated pepper vines. Since 1980s, diseases including the foot rot are haunting cultivated pepper in the areca gardens in Uttara Kannada district.
Scientists are suggesting the farmers to conduct proper nutrient management and to plant those variety of pepper vines which can survive the onslaught of disease.
“As wild pepper is disease-free, more research is needed to use the vines to make cultivated pepper also disease-free, through grafting or other methods. At the government level, giving attention to the protection of such breeds has begun, and laws on biodiversity,the plant varieties and farmers’ rights will help in this regard,” says Ananth Hegde Ashisara, the former chairman of the Western Ghats Task Force.
More research required
According to Shivanand Kalave, wild pepper has several varieties including the one which helps musicians to maintain a good voice. “More research on wild pepper is needed, and scientists and other so called nature enthusiasts who fly in aeroplanes and attend mere seminars should come down to the forests. Better awareness at the local level is also needed for proper protection of rare varieties like wild pepper and malabar nutmeg and the evergreen forests in total,” he says.
According to Sirsi-based College of Forestry Professor R Vasudev, wild pepper can be seen in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats from Goa to Kerala, but its species may differ. So far, no considerable disease has been found in wild pepper vines, he says.
However, Laxminarayan Hegde, Professor of Medicinal & Aromatic Plants at College of Horticulture in Sirsi, says that wild pepper (piper hookeri) has not yet proven useful to prevent the foot rot disease in cultivated pepper (piper nigrum), as proper union has not been achieved in the grafting.
“Wild pepper may look disease-free as they grow in isolation inside the closed canopy forests, but tests have shown that they may also get infected. Paniyur 1, a hybrid variety, is the most common type of pepper being cultivated in the district at present,” he explains.