Se­cret of smell

Found in high al­ti­tude forests, lichens are an im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent of al­most all spice mixes of In­dia SHALINI DHYANI

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - (The au­thor is a sci­en­tist with the Wa­ter Tech­nol­ogy and Man­age­ment divi­sion of NEERI, Nag­pur)

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

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