P. Vincent espouses the cause of the humble vetiver.He tells Subha J Rao about its role in sustaining ecology

There's a glow on P. Vincent's face as he talks about an aromatic root that has been used by more than a 100 countries to prevent soil erosion. And, a hint of sadness too — that a herb from India with a Tamil name is not as popular in its own country, especially at a time when the entire world is talking about vetiver.

World over, people tap into its benefits. Africa, notably Madagascar and Kenya, have made success stories of it. It is used extensively to control and prevent erosion on the banks of Brahmaputra's tributaries. Vincent has a role to play there too. He's sent over a thousand vetiver “mother plants” to Assam, because the South Indian variety has the longest root system.

Novel technique

He raises the plants in specialised netpots (small pots with perforations), five to seven of which can fit into your palm. Vincent grows them in a mixture of coir pith, mulch, Vesicular Arbuscular Mycorrhizae (VAM) and mud. “These pots don't weigh much. The coir pith retains moisture longer, and transportation is easy because it is compact,” he explains. All he needed to send the plants to Assam was a box previously used to hold a ream of A-4 size paper! He's also sent plants to Goa, Pune, Bangalore and Visakhapatnam.

Vincent's fondness for plants is hereditary. “My father loved them too. Growing up in the estates in Valparai further deepened my love for greenery.” But, it really took root in Denkanikottai near Hosur, in the 1980s. That was where young bankers Vincent and friend N. Thirumalaisamy were introduced to flowers, plants and Nature. The local villagers were famous for their ‘budding' technique — inserting Dutch rose buds into jungle rose plants. The duo watched, fascinated.

Slowly, Vincent was drawn to the world of ornamental plants. Staying as they were near Bangalore, they made it a point to visit the garden city for the flower shows in Lalbagh on Independence Day and Republic Day. Slowly, Vincent started collecting rare species of ornamental plants with top-class foliage, paying up to Rs. 60 for a single plant in the 1980s! Some of them, such as the Mexican bread plant, have travelled with him through his transfers. Now, they flourish in his Peelamedu Pudur home and farm at Varakambadi, near Anaikatti.

Vincent's passion falls into two categories. One has turned into a profitable hobby — he sells saplings of ornamental plants, many of them rare, such as zamioculcas zamiifolia and bromilides. The other sees him experimenting with ways to augment the income of tribals while sticking to sustainable agricultural practices. His lab is his terrace garden and 20-acre farm.

An organic space

He bought the farm with a like-minded friend. Today, rolling farmlands are lush with aromatic rosemary, lemongrass, jackfruit and some rare trees, all organic. “I use this space to show tribals that agriculture can be profitable. Rosemary's benefits are many — it is low-maintenance, has a high market value, is not perishable and wild animals leave it alone. Most important, it has a market, fresh, dry or in oil form. Tribals will not adopt newer practices unless they see it first-hand,” he says.

He chose this belt, because farmers in hilly tracts suffer more soil erosion. “This terrain requires more trees to protect the top soil. When that goes, it pushes farmers into debt and migration,” he says.

Vincent also helps his farmer-neighbours by sourcing traditional seeds — millets and cereals such as kudhirai vali — for them. “Only that way can the traditional seed gene pool be kept alive,” he says.

He also advocates rain water harvesting and the culture of farm ponds. He believes it will change the face of farming.

It is no surprise that vetiver-lover Vincent's farm is an example of innovative uses of the plant. He's planted them as a hedge around the field — “the vetiver roots hold water and release them slowly into the earth”, he explains.

In another patch, vetiver has been planted close to the main plant — “I can't explain it, but these plants grow better. I believe that is because of the innate goodness the vetiver delivers to the soil.”

“Whatever we do to improve soil quality, nothing can replace the top soil. What vetiver does is send down roots really deep into the ground so that it forms a protective wall around the plants. Therefore, rain water is not allowed to wash off all the top soil. Nutrients are retained,” he explains.

Vincent, Secretary, Coimbatore District Herbal and Tree Growers' Association, also raises a rooftop kitchen garden. He blogs about his experiences there and at the farm, ecology and related matters of interest at maravalam.blogspot.com.

But, his target area is vetiver, and he propagates the Vetiver System, a method of soil and water conservation that is environment-friendly. “Because of vetiver, countries have saved billions during times of natural calamities. Here, we are crushed when there is a landslide in the Nilgiris. When will we understand that this tiny plant can save the world?”

GOOD EARTH

The Vetiver Network International, a NGO in which 120 countries participate, lauds Vincent's “neat idea” of using netpots.

Vincent speaks of virtual water — the amount of water used to produce something. Did you know it takes 44,000 lts of water to produce two lts of coconut oil? To grow a kg of rice, it takes 3,400 lts, but millets need less than 1,000 lts. “We need to change mindsets and get farmers to cultivate grains such as kambu and ragi that don't denude the environment.”

The fifth international conference on vetiver will be held in Lucknow in October 2011. Visit www.vetiver.org for details.

Keywords: vetiverecologyP. Vincent

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