The Ambanad clove trees went for a bid of Rs. 2 crore this year. The Ambanad belt has more than 20,000 clove trees and the Kallar belt, about 10,000

Known as the “champion spice”, the evergreen clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum), related to eucalyptus, is native to the Spice Islands or the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.

It is one of the four major spices in trade and history, along with nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper. Clove was introduced in India by the East India Company during the 1800s along the Courtalam high ranges of the erstwhile south Travancore region.

Slowly, clove cultivation spread in pockets extending from the high ranges of Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu through Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam to the Mekkara hills in Thirunelveli district.

Clove belt

The clove belt of Kollam district extends from Kallar, nestled within the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, to the Ambanad hills bordering the Aryankavu forests.

Buds sprout on trees between December and March and should be harvested before they open. That is when the buds start to change colour from green to light pink.

These days, labourers from Tamil Nadu are brought to the belt to harvest the buds. The process is much more than just picking the buds by hand from the clove trees, which are more than 12-metre-high. The buds in clusters have to be segregated from stalks after harvest. Then the buds have to be sundried to attain a chocolate hue.

This year, the buds harvested from the Kollam belt will be worth over Rs.10 crore in the market, largely based in Nagercoil. In 2008, the price of dried clove stood at Rs.270 a kg, while the current price ranges from Rs.850 to Rs.1,000 a kg, depending on the quality.

Harvesting

Since harvesting and drying is a tedious job, plantation owners usually lease out the harvest to bidders. A plantation will have clove trees spread over several mountains and the trees should be protected against theft during the harvest season.

The Ambanad clove trees went for a bid of Rs. 2 crore this year. The Ambanad belt has more than 20,000 clove trees and the Kallar belt, about 10,000. Three persons have to work four days to harvest a mature clove tree. Care should be taken not to break branches as it will result in drop in production the following year.

Hundreds of buds are harvested everyday from a tree. If not, the buds will open resulting in drop in quality, which will bring heavy loss. Drying is also a three-day job.

Labourers use long bamboo ladders to scale the trees. If climatic conditions are ideal, a tree can yield about 60 kg of raw clove. On drying, the weight comes down to one-third.

The stalks and fallen leaves of the clove trees, used in the toothpaste industry, provide additional income. This year, the leaves fetch Rs.10 a kg and the stalks about Rs. 15 a kg in the market.

In India, cloves are largely used as spice in cooking. But a good quantity is also sold for extracting an essential oil called eugenol, which has medical applications.

The shortage of skilled labour is a major problem plaguing the industry. There is a drop in the number of labourers each year from Tamil Nadu.

Failure to pluck buds on time and shoddy harvesting will lead to considerable loss. Labour shortage has also led to a rise in wages, plantation owners said.

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