Palani Hills may lose unique banana varieties to virus

Palani Hills may lose unique banana varieties to virus

Kochi: The delicately flavoured bananas grown in the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu, traditionally used to make the panchamrutham offered at the renowned Subramanya temple, may be wiped out by a viral disease that is spreading across estates in the area.

The condition, known as “bunchy top", results in the stunting of the leaves, which are bunched together, preventing the plant from fruiting. Farmers are placing colourful sticky traps that attract the aphids, the white fly-like insects that spread the virus, said V. Arasu, secretary of the TN Hill Banana Growers Federation, an organization of around 280 farmers across the Palani Hills.

Two varieties—virupaksha and sirumalai—that are native to the area were conferred geographical indication, or GI, status in May, giving them a unique identity and recognition as products bearing the special characteristics of a particular geography.

Both are grown by about 280 farmers as an inter-crop across 8,000ha of coffee estates. Three decades ago, the area was about five times as much, said Shanker Nagarajan, a coffee planter. “It will shrink further since the disease is spreading across the estates and the only solution is uprooting the affected plant and burning it so that the virus is destroyed," he said.

These hill bananas, especially the virupaksha variety, which is sweeter and keeps longer, are used to make the panchamruthum—literally, nectar made of five ingredients—a mixture of the bananas, ghee, jaggery, sugar candy, honey, raisins and spices. The concoction is poured along with milk over the temple icon and the resulting prasadam is believed to have medicinal properties.

Temple authorities traditionally collected the fruit twice a week till about a year ago.

But they were forced to look elsewhere after growing demand from other centres, especially across Tamil Nadu, prompted fruit merchants to buy the bananas from the farmers for up to Rs27 per kg (around 10 bananas make a kg). The temple has now turned to fruit grown in the Mysore hills in Karnataka, said Shanker.

However, the fruit traders, who started going directly to the farmers to buy the produce at least thrice a week about four years ago, have also stopped going, Shanker said.

Around 40-50kg of bananas used to be collected over a week but that has now been discontinued because of the toll the virus has taken on the fruit.

The bananas are raised as an additional crop in the coffee plantations as they provide much-needed shade to the coffee plants as well as a steady income to the farmers. It takes around 15 months for a plant to bear fruit, while subsequent harvests are made in 8-10 months. The plant has a life of six years, after which it is uprooted and the side suckers, or shoots that grow from the sides of the roots, are replanted.

The strength of the coffee market has made farmers complacent about the spreading virus.

“Though there is a general awareness of the severity of the disease, the comfortable prices that coffee fetches make growers tend to ignore these plants. Fortunately, the virus does not affect the coffee plants," said Arasu of the banana growers’ association.

The virus attack has affected almost 35% of the plants across the area, said M. Anandan, head of the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University horticultural research station near Palani. Even the disease-free tissue culture plants that come at Rs12-14 apiece, nearly Rs2 higher than the side suckers, are not disease tolerant, he added.

Fungal infections such as banana wilt can be controlled by pesticides, but not bunchy top attacks, Anandan said. There are no varieties that can resist the disease, he said.