Secret of smell
Found in high altitude forests, lichens are an important ingredient of almost all spice mixes of India SHALINI DHYANI
Lichens are an important ingredient of almost all spice mixes of India
ACOUPLE OF years ago, I went to Narayan Bagar, a small hamlet in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand to look for a vehicle to take me to Ghesh village, one of the last villages that lead to the alpine pastures of Bagji. It was a pleasant cold evening in western Himalayas and I saw residents returning back from forests with fuelwood, fodder and leaf litter. They also had sacks full of something that they were very possessive about. Responding to my curious enquiries, one resident said, “jhula hai madam ji”. Jhula is the local name for lichens that grow profusely in the area. Over the next few days I tried to find out more about the extraction and trade of lichens from small mountain hamlets of Garhwal. Lichens are sold in the market under various trade names including jhula, mukku, makku, chadila and dagadphool. In local village haats (small shops), these are sold by spice traders. Lichens are also sold in big grocery
stores of small cities as these are an important ingredient of garam masala and other spice mixes. Even spice mandis, including the biggest one in Khari Baoli in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, stock them. Lichens are collected from oak forests from September to March every year.
Lichens together with mosses cover more than 10 per cent of terrestrial habitats, across the altitudinal gradients in mountain areas across the globe. Lichens are a composite form of algae (it prepares food) living among fungal filaments in a symbiotic relationship. These are sensitive to environmental degradation and are considered to be important bio-indicators as they have the potential to accumulate heavy metals. Lichens are classified in three cate-gories based on the habitat they grow: lichens growing on stones are crustose, foliose grows on tree barks and the last and rare in occurrence are the fruticose that hang from branches in high altitude pristine forests.
Parmotrema perlatum is a foliose lichen generally traded as spice. “There is no spice mix in India, be it sambhar masala or garam masala or meat masala that is complete without lichens,” says Sampat Ram Gupta, a wholesale trader of lichens in Khari Baoli.
In Asian countries like China and Japan, many species of lichens are used to add flavour to soups and salads. Other than its use as a spice, lichens are also used as a key ingredient in different kinds of dyes, in the aromatic industry and traditional medicine, though modern medicine has still not given due worth to lichens. “Jhula is utilised as a key ingredient of many ayurvedic, Unani and herbal combinations,” says Rudra Singh Butola from Tolma village in Niti Valley.
Lichen trade in India is not new and they are collected and traded from different forests across the country, with the major share coming from Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Assam and Karnataka. It is an important livelihood option for many household and in Chamoli district alone, more than 300 collectors harvest them from forests every day in its peak season. Collection is seasonal. It is completely restricted in March, July, August and September due to reasons such as forest fires and rains.
More than 800 metric tonnes of lichens is reported to be collected from Uttarakhand and an equal amount from Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Assam. About 50 to 80 tonnes of lichens are exported from India to neighbouring as well as European countries. “In our village, we get around 60-70 per kg and we need to harvest five trees for a kg of lichen biomass,” says Kesar Singh Bisht of Ghesh village in Chamoli district. He says that rates of lichen biomass have seen a steady hike in the past few years to almost
100-300/kg based on different grades where fruticose is the best grade and crustose the lowest. Patthar Chura or crustose lichen fetches the collector only around 30. A lichen collector can easily collect 6 to 8 kg of lichens from dead logs and snags and can earn a reasonable income without damaging the ecosystem and lopping the trees. Locals also harvest lichens by complete as well partial lopping of host trees, usually oak. While Nepalese labourers are involved in full-time lichen harvesting, locals prefer it as a part-time option for alternative livelihood. Locals can harvest approximately 3-5 kg of lichen biomass per day while a trained Nepalese labourer can harvest more than 15 kg per day. Interestingly, Nepalese collectors are also blamed for illegal harvesting and poaching in the forests while collecting lichens.
Unlike other countries, lichens in India are not protected under The Biological Diversity Act, 2002 or the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. There is a worry among researchers and conservationists that extensive trade of lichens is damaging and destroying forest health. Frequent
Lichen trade is an important livelihood for many households. In Uttarakhand's Chamoli district alone, more than 300 collectors harvest them during the peak season
harvesting of lichens from forests is also leading to poor growth of lichens in these areas. They say damage to forest ecosystems will affect forest composition, structure and functioning of the entire ecosystem in the long-run. As a solution, scientists at lichenology lab of National Botanical Research Institute at Lucknow are trying to grow lichens in artificial and controlled conditions of the laboratory. However, it would be better to preserve and restore natural forests as habitat and refuge to these lichens.
Lichens (centre) add a unique aroma to most spice mixes