MANGALURU: The hilly areas of coastal Karnataka are home to a variety of wild fruits. One of them is the succulent and sweet-sour Kokum. Known as Punarpuli or Murgala in Kannada, the green-red to dark purple fruit is a favourite with both humans and wildlife. It has both culinary and medicinal uses — while it spices up hot fish and poultry curries, it is also helpful in treating disorders caused by acidic reactions.
Kokum trees have, over the years, become a rarity in the Western Ghats region. But one man has been on a long crusade to save this tree from becoming so. Narayana Rai, a farmer from Ballikan village in Puttur, has already sown the seeds of hope among growers and over the last 30 years has created a nursery of only Kokum trees. Fighting fit at 93, Rai continues to distribute to people Kokum saplings so that they are grown effortlessly in Karnataka, Kerala and a few places in Goa and Maharashtra.
“I would have given away not less than a million Kokum saplings in the last 30 years,” says Rai, adding, “I am happy that over 80 per cent have survived in organised plantations in Kerala, Karnataka and in the wild.”
He grows Kokum saplings and distributes it to growers every day. Towards the end of monsoon, he becomes active as “that is the time to plant saplings,” he says.
In Puttur and Sullia when planters were disheartened with areca and vanilla, it was Rai who introduced Kokum as a commercial plantation.
“Thirty years ago, when I was done with being a campaigner for pepper, I found it was hard to get Kokum in the market even for my daily consumption. When I investigated, I found out that there were few trees. I found the trees weren’t afflicted by any disease but sheer ignorance had led to them not being grown. The ones that were in the forests were being cut down for timber or firewood. No one was aware of the medicinal values of the fruit.”
Kokum has a wonder medicine called hydrocitric acid, which is said to be useful in treating obesity and heart problems. “It was regularly consumed in earlier days. People used it daily by preparing dishes out of the fresh fruits,” said Rai. In parts of Kerala and Karnataka, particularly coastal areas, they make ‘Kokum kadi’ (with coconut milk and vegetables) which is very tangy. It is also used in fish preparations.
“Kokum is now an exportable item. Farmers, who I mentored ten years back, give me their feedback. Their harvest is taken by export agents at `200 a kg. Many rubber planters have shifted to Kokum in Puttur, Sullia, Kasargod and parts of Madikeri. Many planters from north of Malabar coast, all along the Konkan coast and up to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra have taken saplings from me and prospered,” says Rai.
A planter in Sindhudurg in Goa-Maharashtra, who has over 200 trees in his plantation, says he earns `2.4 lakh per annum from just 100 flowering trees. With improved harvesting tools, Kokum harvesting has become less labour intensive. “It does not need fertilisers,” he says.
Adding value to the fruit, Rai himself has produced a hair oil and a body massage oil.