Kerala is the land of lush greenery. From pristine reserve forests to sprawling plantations, our little state sits prominently on the Western Ghats. Yet, several plants that are now closely linked with Kerala have their origins far abroad. While some of them came by trade, others were brought to augment grain supply and still, others were brought as experiments by the colonisers. Let’s take a look at seven of Kerala’s most popular foreign flora:
Tea Plant or Camellia sinensis
A choodu chaaya, a little something to bite and a rainy afternoon – a recipe for relaxation. As you drink the tea watching Kerala’s beautiful tropical rains, take a moment to think about where your aromatic drink came from. Tea is now so ubiquitous that most people don’t stop to think about how it was exotic to us once upon a time. Tea is said to have originated in Southwest China with records mentioning tea going back as far as the 1st century BCE. It was the British who brought tea to Kerala in the 19th century for commercial cultivation. The earliest record of tea cultivation in Kerala is from Peermade in 1875. There are several types of tea, among which green tea, which is fermented before firing, is the healthiest. It is a bush plant and grows up to waist length in plantations. For making tea, only the buds and the first two tender shoots of each shoot in the shrub is taken.
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Kappa/Tapioca or Manihot esculenta
Kappa with meen curry is a constant in Malayali cuisine. We boil it, we steam it, we make all sorts of dishes with kappa, yet kappa itself is not a native plant of Kerala. Tapioca is actually the name of the starch derived from the root we eat. The plant itself is called ‘cassava’ or ‘yuca’. In Brazil, it is commonly called mandioca. It was first brought to India by the Portuguese. There is a really interesting story behind tapioca getting introduced in Kerala. After Kerala was affected by a great famine in the mid 1800s, Vishakam Thirunal Rama Varma, the king of Travancore introduced cassava as a substitute for rice. Later on, during a period of rice shortage, kappa became extremely popular. In Kerala, kappa is known by different names – kappa, cheeni, maracheeni, kizhange, and so on. Today, kappa has become a staple in Kerala. A hardy food for hardy people.
Rubber or Hevea brasiliensis
Rubber is one of the most important cash crops in Kerala. And yes, it is a foreign flora! Just like kappa is a staple in our culture, an achayan with a rubber thottam is common in many parts of Kerala. Rubber, however, is native to South America. The first commercial rubber plantations in Kerala were established at Thattekad in 1902 by a Britisher named J.J. Murphy. The economically valuable part of rubber is the white latex extracted from the trunk of the tree. It is used to make rubber objects like tyres. Rubber trees can grow for over a hundred years, however, its production phase, i.e. which leads to latex has a limited time span.
Cacao Plant or Theobroma cacao
There are so many reasons to be thankful for the time you were born in and I think one of them should be that we live in an era where chocolate is easily available. Can you imagine a world without chocolate? That sweet, brown occasionally white or bitter thing that makes our diets so much better was unknown in our part of the world until the Europeans introduced them. They learnt cacao cultivation from the ancient Mexicans in the 1500s. In Kerala, cacao was introduced in Idukki in the late 1800s by the British East India Company. Today, Kerala ranks among the top producers of cocoa in India.
Sugarcane or Saccharum officinarum
Sugarcane has been here long enough for us to think that it is indigenous to South Asia. However, sugarcane is actually native to New Guinea where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Sugarcane was probably brought to India in the Vedic Age. But over time, India has come to have its own native species – S. barberi. And a name Indians, and especially Malayalis, should remember in connection to Keraka’s history with sugarcane is E.K. Janaki Ammal. Janaki Ammal was a PhD scholar who helped to develop India’s indigenous sugarcane varieties. Palakkad is the leading producer of sugarcane in Kerala
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Rambutan or Nephelium lappaceum
Rambutan is a fruit (foreign flora) that came to Kerala from Malaysia. With its spiky skin, rambutan reminds me of an average gruff person who is actually a sweet softie inside. Kerala is particularly good for growing rambutans. There are two types of rambutans currently in Kerala: red and yellow.
Cashew Tree or Anacardium occidentale
Cashew is yet another cash crop that found a foothold in Kerala despite being from abroad. Cashew is native to West Africa. It is believed that Portuguese traders brought cashew to Kerala in the 16th century. It is called parangi mavu in Malayalam and both the cashew apple and the nut are edible. Cashew nuts are processed by roasting and then peeling off the shell to get cashew nuts and cashew oil is extracted from the shell. Most processing centres are currently in Kollam.
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