For farmers frustrated by the vagaries of monsoon, Tamil Nadu’s State flower, Gloriosa superba is a gold mine waiting to be exploited. The plant, which contains 24 types of alkaloids (nitrogenous organic compounds) and 10 non-alkaloidal medicinal compounds, is widely used in native medicinal compositions and in the treatment of gout and as a pain killer in allopathic medicine. Its cultivation, though confined to a few pockets in Tamil Nadu, has started to spread in the recent years.
The cultivation of Gloriosa superba by farmers is an interesting story. T. P. Rajendran, a farmer from Sivakasi, who stumbled upon a tuber in his farm in 1970, about which he was clueless, sent it to the Tropical Products Institute, London, for analysis.
There it was confirmed that this was a plant whose extract was used by the pharmaceutical industry. A few months later, he came across a tall plant near Oddanchatram in Dindigul district in the wild. When an Italian pharmaceutical company offered to buy Gloriosa tuber for ₹250 a kg in 1972, he started to grow the plant under contract farming in several places of Dindigul and the present Tirupur districts. In 1980, its export was banned as Gloriosa entered the list of endangered species. The same year, export was allowed only for seeds cultivated in farms, says Mr. Rajendran.
Enthused by the returns, more farmers took to its cultivation. It is now grown in a few thousands of acres in Dindigul and Tirupur districts among others.
The average per acre yield is 100 kg but there are farmers who reap 500 kg of seeds. The price has also gone up from ₹250 a kg 30 years ago to ₹3,430 now.
A major problem in the cultivation of this species is pollination. The peculiar structure of the flower impedes pollination rate. Mr. Rajendran has come up with a novel method to tackle this by resorting to ‘touch pollination’ or manual pollination of implanting pollen grains. The other problem is the high cost of raising the plant. But the returns are huge as there is no need to plant it again and again. Tamil Nadu farmers contribute the major share of global consumption of 800 to 1,000 tonnes per annum and the demand goes up by 10 to 15% every year, says S. Mani Raja, a farmer of Sankaralingapuram. Even in the absence of proper marketing facility for Gloriosa, “this is the only produce for which the farmer can decide the price,” says Mr. Rajendran.