By Vishal Gulati

Shimla– Apple cultivation, long associated with the Himalayan foothills, is headed south to the tropics in an experiment that, if successful, could see the country’s output jump several-fold.

The project to grow “low-chilling variety of apples” in southern India is revolutionary, says horticulture scientist Chiranjit Parmar, with production per hectare expected to be in the range of 65 tonnes — dramatically higher than in states like Himachal Pradesh.

“If the project succeeds in the tropics, which it almost has, it will be a revolution in the apple production in India,” Parmar, who is based in Mandi town of Himachal Pradesh, told IANS.

He said the south Indian apple orchards — primarily in Karnataka — could produce 10 times more per hectare than Himachal Pradesh. This means the country’s apple production will shoot up exponentially.

The plantation in the south is in the nascent stage and commercial cultivation is yet to start. It started bearing fruit in less than two years, against the six-seven years it normally takes in the hills.

It is estimated that over 8,000 apple trees have been planted since 2011 in and around Karnataka.

Parmar, a former horticulture expert of the Solan-based Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, experimented with the growing of apple trees in tropical areas after seeing apple plantations in tropical Indonesia.

According to him, the reason for the speedy growth of apple saplings in the tropical region is the absence of the plant’s dormant phase — a natural phenomenon which helps it resist extreme cold.

“The apple plantation sees a huge success in those regions which do not experience winter at all and where the minimum temperature never falls below 12 degrees Celsius and the summer is also not harsh,” he said.

“Now apple plants are sent every year not only to Karnataka but also to the adjoining states,” Parmar said. A majority of saplings have been supplied from the horticulture university’s nursery at Bajaura in Kullu.

Krishna Shetty of Mangalore is one of the growers who procured 300 saplings from Himachal Pradesh in January 2011 and planted them at 20 locations on a trial basis. Subsequently, he procured more plants in 2012.

Grower Gangadhar Murthy of Tumkur, who planted apple sapplings in 2013, said his plantation was quite successful, along with coconuts. He’s now eyeing a commercial cultivation of apples.

“The growing conditions for apple trees are entirely different from those in their native regions. So the plants are behaving differently. For example, because of the incessant growth, flowering in the trees begins in the second year whereas it takes five to six years in the hills,” Parmar said.

“Moreover, the flowering is continuous throughout the year. The shoots have a tendency of growing upright. The trees are becoming tall compared to the hills. The pests and diseases in the tropics are also different and new. This can be controlled by the state research centres,” he said.

Parmar pointed out that some unscrupulous people have started promoting its cultivation by claiming that they have developed apple varieties exclusively suitable for southern India.

“The reality is different. The variety has got no role to play in its success. It’s the timings of lifting the saplings from the nursery and then their planting at the new place which governs the success,” Parmar said.

He said the saplings could be procured only from apple-growing belts in the hills after their dormancy is over by March. And these should be replanted in less than two days.

Horticulture expert S.P. Bhardwaj, a former Joint Director at the Y.S. Parmar University, told IANS the low-chilling apple varieties should be promoted on a large scale.

“The government of India should promote its cultivation as a majority of the country’s apple market is being captured by the imported ones, mainly from China, the US, New Zealand and Australia,” he added.

The only downside, if it could be called that, is that apples grown in tropical conditions have a shorter shelf-life compared to those grown in temperate areas.

Thus, apples grown in Karnataka have a time-period of 12-15 days, whereas those from the hills can last up to a month. (IANS)