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Salicornia, oil-yielding plant for coastal belts

By Our Agriculture Correspondent

The highly salt-tolerant crop yields high quality edible oil and other valuable edible and non-edible products. (Inset) A close-up of the succulent bush.

SALICORNIA, IS a succulent, bushy plant found in the salty-terrains near the coast, and it holds a lot of promise as an ideal edible-oil yielding crop, which can be raised using seawater. "An improved variety of Salicornia developed by crossing with other highly drought-resistant and salt-resistant species of Salicornia, is being grown extensively in several parts of the world, including India.

The variety, SOS-10, grows well in desert sands irrigated with seawater and it can be grown along the sea shore as well," explains Felix Ryan, the Chennai-based Advisor for Development and Refugee Rehabilitation of the United Nations, and Chief Monitor, Survival by Seawater Global Movement.

"Salicornia has vast potential as forage, vegetable, oilseeds and raw material for a host of rural industries including the rural energy development, and employment generation. It does exceedingly well with maximum yields in hot climates if the seeds are sown in the cool season of the region so as to reach maturity during the hot or very warm months, " points out Mr. Ryan. The crop needs about 100 days relatively cool weather to achieve vegetative growth. It suits both the small, labour-intensive farms as well as the highly mechanised large-scale farms, according to him.

Belonging to the family Chenopodiaceae, Salicornia is a halophyte (literally a plant that grows in salty soil), and its seeds yield high quality edible oil, which is highly poly-unsaturated and similar to safflower oil in fatty acid composition. It has a pleasant nut-like flavour and a texture similar to olive oil.

The tender and succulent leaves and stem of Salicornia, which is popularly described as `Sea asparagus', are cooked and eaten or pickled. It is also a good fodder for cattle, sheep and goat, and can be ensilaged. It is also used as raw material in paper and board factories. The seeds yield protein-rich oil and the dry biomass can be crushed to make fuel briquettes, according to Mr Ryan.

A few private companies have taken up large-scale Salicornia cultivation in Rajasthan and Gujarat with improved variety SOS 10, and some research institutions such as the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavanagar, Gujarat, and the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai, are conducting research on the nutritional value and the cultivation techniques for growing Salicornia.

The plant grows well in sand and sandy loam soils endowed well adequate drainage. The crop responds to increased application of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Seawater appears to contain sufficient quantities of other nutrients and micronutrients to eliminate the need for supplementation with other fertilizers. In seven months the crop reaches maturity, and in many locales a high yield of 18 tonnes of dry biomass has been harvested.

The field seed-yield is about 10-12 per cent of the total dry biomass. A 2000-hectare farm would yield a total biomass of 30,000 tonnes and a seed yield of 2,500-3000 tonnes of seeds, according to experts.

"There are two species of Salicornia, which are being commercially cultivated in different parts of the world. One of them is Salicornia biglovii, and it does not occur in India. This grows in moist, open coastal belts, and its seeds contain as high as 30 per cent oil and 35 per cent protein.

The other, Salicornia brachiata, is an erect annual herb distributed mainly in the salt marshes of Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Sri Lanka. It has a seed yield of 100 kg per hectare, and the oil content is 20 per cent," say Ajay Parida and Srinivasa Rao, scientists at MSSRF.

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