The cold deserts of the Himalayas could soon be dotted with the bright red berries of the seabuckthorn plant, popularly known as Leh berries.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Defence Research and Development Organisation have launched a major national initiative for seabuckthorn cultivation in the high-altitude, cold desert ecosystems.

The aim is to bring a million hectares under cultivation by 2020, with an initial funding of Rs.25 crore in 2011 for preparatory work and a pilot programme in five districts, according to the Leh Declaration. It was adopted on Wednesday at the conclusion of a workshop for stakeholders, organised by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research.

India currently has only 11,500 hectares under seabuckthorn cultivation, an area that is far outstripped by other countries where the plant is indigenous. China has 1.1 million hectares, Russia 47,000 hectares, and Mongolia 30,000 hectares.

The new initiative could have a significant effect in all the Himalayan States, especially in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, where the cold deserts comprise 40 per cent of land area, said Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh.

The Territorial Army and women's self-help groups will be roped in for the project, which is expected to secure community livelihoods, and also to ensure conservation of the fragile high-altitude ecosystems.

Seabuckthorn, also called the “Wonder plant” and “Ladakh gold” has multi-purpose medicinal and nutritional properties, and also helps in soil conservation and nitrogen fixation.

Medicinal uses

Long considered a humble shrub of the Himalayas, every part of the plant – fruit, leaf, twig, root and thorn – has been traditionally used for medicine, nutritional supplements, fuel and fencing.

Hardy, drought-resistant and tolerant to extreme temperatures from – 43º C to + 40º C, the plant has an extensive root system which can fix atmospheric nitrogen, making it ideal for controlling soil erosion and preventing desertification.

The initiative is expected to be included in the Sub-Mission on Cold Desert Ecosystems to be established under the Green India Mission — which is a part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change.