Say hello to the poor man's rich fruit

Say hello to the poor man's rich fruit

Come summer, everyone enjoys eating ice apple (taati nungu or palmyra palm) in great numbers. Called a poor man’s rich fruit, this fleshy fruit is a true summer delicacy. A hard outer shell protects a delicious, translucent jelly inside. Just like the coconut tree, ice apple is also considered as Kalpavriksha (wish-fulfilling tree) as every part of the tree has high economic value. A subspecies of palm, ice apple trees are found in semi-arid tropics of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

Though the cultivation of these trees has immense potential, no determined efforts have been made towards the cause, says H P Maheshwarappa, the project co-ordinator (Palms) of All India Co-ordinated Research Project (AICRP) on Palms at Central Plantation Crops Research Institute (CPCRI), Kasargod. The CPCRI also has a centre in Vitla in Dakshina Kannada. “One of the reasons could be that the growth of the tree is very slow and it takes about 10 to 15 years to bear fruits,” he explains. Once it starts to yield, each palm tree may bear 10 to 15 bunches of about 150 to 250 fruits per year.

On the other hand, this palmyra palm tree does not require much water for cultivation and is highly disease-resistant. It can be planted in any type of soil to increase soil fertility and water conservation. In fact, it is used as a wind-breaker in sandy plains to stabilise dunes!

According to Maheshwarappa, this tree is also known as the ‘tree of life’ due to the fact that it finds itself useful in various fields of food, beverage, fibre, fodder, medicine and timber. Among the various edible uses of the tree, the sweet sap tapped from the inflorescence, called neera, is used for making palm sugar. The petiole fibre and leaf blade are used to make products such as brushes and handicrafts. The tree serves as a source of raw material for several small cottage industries.

The CPCRI has been doing yeomen service in the field of palms and incidentally, the CPCRI completed 100 years of its existence in 2016. According to Maheshwarappa, who is responsible for co-ordinating research in palms in different parts of the country, collection of dwarf, early and high neera yielding genotypes are being selected through intensive surveys conducted in Karnataka and other states of the country since 1991. “So far, 271 accessions have been collected and evaluated under the AICRP centres for palmyra,” he says.

Though neera is fast becoming popular in rural and urban areas of India (except in Karnataka as the number of tappers have reduced drastically), it is one of the most economical produce and a good source of minerals. Very interestingly, the fruit has absolutely no fat and protein. Besides extracting neera, the palmyra pulp is mixed with other fruits for making jam, cordial, cream, etc.  

The tree trunks are used either as live poles in construction of thatch sheds, or as timber to replace wooden poles. The trunk of the tree is hallowed, and is directly used as boat for fishing in many parts of the tropics. Besides, the trunk of grown up palm is cut and used as rafters.

While the matured leaves are cured and are primarily used for thatching houses and making mats, they are also used for making several value added utility articles such as baskets, fans, hats, umbrellas, buckets, sandals and as writing material. Similarly, the tough and long fibre extracted from petiole is used for making of ropes, which are used in building of houses and boats. One of the important ecological services of the palm to society is that it sequestrates atmospheric carbon and stores it in the trunk. Thus, it purifies the air in the atmosphere. “However, the fibre is the most economical as each palm gives 2 kg of fibre per year and one person can collect manually 10 kg per day and sell at Rs 20 per kg, earning Rs 200-300 per day,” explains P C Vengaiah, a scientist at Horticultural Research Station at Pandirimamidi, Andhra Pradesh.

The palm fibre has great export potential and is exported to 33 countries with Japan, UK, West Germany, Belgium and Poland accounting to over 80% of the export, he noted.

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