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Growing apples in Beldanga: School teacher’s amazing feat – GetBengal story

28 May, 2024 16:28:09
Growing apples in Beldanga: School teacher’s amazing feat – GetBengal story

OThere's nothing quite as satisfying as the first bite of a sweet, juicy, freshly picked apple. Apples, one of the oldest cultivated fruits, are present even in ancient mythical stories. From the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to the golden apples Hercules got from the Garden of the Hesperides, the fruit Paris gave to the fairest of them all (Aphrodite) started the Trojan War. Even fairytales have helped the fruit's reputation!

The apples of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are the best in India. Mother Nature has blessed these states with abundant indigenous produce, apples being one of them. Since apples require a considerable period of dormancy, they thrive in areas with a distinct winter period. Low temperatures and a short growing season limit apple growth. Apple orchards flourish mainly in Kullu, Kinnaur, Shimla, and Mandi. Himachal apples have a colonial history and come in a variety of kinds. However, all that is past now. Horticulturists, both professional and amateur, have developed new varieties that can withstand heat and, in the process, have revolutionised apple cultivation. 

Take, for instance, Rupesh Das of Kachharipara, in Beldanga, Murshidabad district. I am a primary school teacher and a passionate horticulturist. He has transformed his small one-and-a-half katha (1 katha is equal to 1361.25 square feet) plot into a ‘Garden of Eden’ with three apple trees laden with luscious fruits, amounting to 15 kilogrammes or more. This sounds incredible, right? That is precisely why locals have been flocking to his garden to witness the phenomenon. It is a miracle considering that during the summer months, temperatures in Murshidabad oscillate between 42 and 45 degrees Celsius, and apples only grow in mild temperate, inland cool dry, cool temperate, cold, and alpine climates.

Das has been an innovative gardener since childhood. He would tinker around with seeds and saplings collected from different places. During the pandemic, this interest turned into his passion, and he transformed his garden into a botanical lab of sorts. Since then, he has been experimenting with growing different varieties of fruits, including apples. In fact, last year, he created quite a stir in the district by growing saffron in his garden!

Himachal Pradesh is the "Apple State of India" due to its significant contribution to apple production in the country. The state is known for its extensive apple orchards, which produce high-quality apples. A few years ago, Das procured 10 or 12 apple saplings from Himachal Pradesh online, and he planted them in his garden. This was a daunting task. The apple trees need special care in December, but last year, it rained heavily during the winter when he had taken the trees to dormancy. However, three days’ of incessant rain interrupted the dormancy phase. Das came up with alternative techniques when the trees started blooming. Three apple trees bore fruit last year, but this year’s bumper production has enraptured him.

Apple trees grow in well-drained soil. Chemical and organic fertilisers are used at regular intervals to increase the yield of apples. Traditionally, rolling hilltops or sloping sides of hills were preferred because they provided “air drainage,” allowing the colder, heavier air to drain away to the valley below during frosty spring nights to make sure the blossoms would not be destroyed.

Himachal’s indigenous crop owes its existence to an American, Samuel Evans “Satyananda” Stokes, the Apple Man of Kotgarh, who was an avatar of John Chapman, the legendary 19th-century American nurseryman “Johnny Appleseed,” who introduced apple trees to many parts of the US. Thanks to Stokes and two earlier Britons, Captain A.A. Lee and Alexander Coutts, what we now consider “desi” apples from Kinnaur and Kullu were brought in from England and the US to take root here.

Das had ordered three hybrid varieties of apple saplings from Himachal Pradesh, which have been specifically developed as warm climate fruit, namely, HRMN 79, Anna, and Dorsett Golden apples. These varieties require a minimum period of chilling that can be fulfilled in the plains in a sub-tropical climate. Das claims these apples can be grown in the plains commercially in the same way we grow mangoes here.

These three varieties of apples have very interesting tales about how they came into being. Hariman Sharma, a progressive farmer hailing from Paniala village in Bilaspur district, Himachal Pradesh, developed an innovative self-pollinating apple variety, HRMN 99, that does not require long chilling hours for flowering and fruit setting. This has spread to plain, tropical, and subtropical areas in various parts of India, where the temperature is as high as 40–45 ºC during the summer. Sharma has become a source of inspiration not only for thousands of farmers in the region but also for horticulturists in Bilaspur and other lower hill districts in the state—areas that earlier could never dream of growing apples.

Commercial cultivation of this apple variety has been initiated in Manipur, Jammu, low-lying areas of Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana, and fruit setting has been expanded to 23 states and Union Territories (UT) so far. In 1998, Hariman Sharma had purchased some apples for consumption from Ghumarwin village, Bilaspur, and had discarded the seeds in his backyard. In 1999, he observed an apple seedling in his backyard, developed from the seeds disposed of by him in the previous year. He could instantly sense that an apple plant growing in a warm place like Paniyala was extraordinary. After a year, the plant started blooming, and he observed fruits in 2001. He preserved the plant as a “mother plant” and started experimenting by grafting the scion (young shoot), and by 2005 he had created a mini orchard of apple trees that continue to bear fruit today.

During further analysis and research, it was observed that HRMN-99 plants aged 3–8 years, produced 5–75 kg of fruit per plant per year in four districts of lower Himachal Pradesh: Sirsa (Haryana) and Manipur. At maturity, it is bigger than other varieties, with very soft, sweet, and juicy pulp and red stripes over yellow skin. Sharma was conferred a National Award in 2017 during the 9th National Biennial Grassroots Innovation and Outstanding Traditional Knowledge Awards by then Hon’ble President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Anna apples are medium- to large-sized and cylindrical in shape. They are light green to yellow in colour with a red blush. Its flesh is juicy, firm, crisp, and creamy white. These apples have a mild, balanced, sweet and tart flavour, similar to the Gala. However, the flavour and texture can vary significantly with ripeness. Greener, less ripe fruit is firmer and fresher, while red, riper fruit tends to be mushy with a sweeter and more complex flavour. The Anna apple tree produces a particularly heavy crop of fruit.

The Anna apple was first developed in Israel in the 1950s at Kibbutz Ein Shemer by Abba Stein and released in 1959. It was developed to be a low-chill variety that thrives in moderate, even desert, climates where the fall and winter months rarely drop below freezing.

Dorsett Golden is a 'Golden Delicious'-like cultivar of domesticated apple and is descended from it, but is different in that it is early season, and most importantly, it needs a lower amount of cold weather (less than 300 hours) to go into bloom, so it is possible to grow in warm climates. "Dorsett" Golden is named after its developer, Mrs. Dorsett from Nassau, New Providence Island, Bahamas, who discovered it sometime in the 1950s. "Golden" is referring to its golden yellow colour. However, it sometimes has a pink flush, even on large surfaces, which only enhances its attraction and beauty. It is mainly used for fresh eating and has a very good texture and sweet flavour. It harvests in the early season, and like other early-season cultivars, it does not keep fresh for too long.

The high status of an apple is truly well deserved, since a medium apple has 95 calories and no sodium, fat, or cholesterol (making it a favourite celeb diet snack!) and it has a good amount of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron, and zinc. As well as  vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C, E, K, folate, and niacin.

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