Aphids decimating famed Sirumalai hill banana to extinction

| Video Credit: G. Karthikeyan

From 2,000 acres of crop 20 years ago, it is now cultivated only on 100 acres with minimum yield; ironically the very climate conducive for the lush growth of GI-tagged hill banana, encourages proliferation of bunchy top virus

Updated - July 10, 2024 02:47 pm IST

Published - June 28, 2024 06:30 pm IST - DINDIGUL

Is the Sirumalai Hill banana on the verge of extinction? Yes, say the 50-odd farmers in the region, who are trying to save this crop that is being frequently affected by bunchy top virus. The virus which is a vector-borne disease is transmitted due to infected suckers and banana aphid. 

About 20 years ago, hill banana cultivation in Sirumalai, in Dindigul district, covered more than 2,000 acres.  This variety of banana grows well in altitudes of 2,500 – 3,000 feet. The fruit is known for its unique smell and flavour and for long had been used in the preparation of ‘panchamirtham’ at the famous Dandayuthapaniswamy Temple in Palani. But, with the cultivation of hill banana waning, the temple has started using ‘karpooravalli’ bananas now.

The aphids that are destroying the hill banana crop.

The aphids that are destroying the hill banana crop. | Photo Credit: G. Karthikeyan

 A. Murugan, a farmer in Sirumalai, says that cultivation of hill bananas is going on in about 100 acres. But, with most of the plants showing ravages of the bunchy top virus, even in the minimum yield, the banana hands and fingers are distorted and twisted. The banana plants in the area look unhealthy, and among the wilted plants aphids can be seen boring their way into the trunks. 

Sekhar, another farmer, says this disease started in the hills more than 10 years ago. About three years ago, agriculture officials gave them some insecticide and pesticides but they were of little help. Each turn on the hill on the way to Thenmalai reveals banana farms ravaged with this disease. “We are now bringing suckers from Perumalmalai in Kodaikanal to replace this variety. The fruits are a bit bigger but they do not have the flavour that Sirumala bananas have,” says another farmer.

“The only solution is to destroy the crops by burning and introducing a fresh crop using tissue culture”J. RajangamDean, Horticulture College and Research Institute, Periyakulam

J. Rajangam, Dean, Horticulture College and Research Institute, Periyakulam, says the disease can be managed by technology and also going in for tissue culture that can give suckers that are disease-free. 

The only way that the disease can be fully eradicated is by removing the affected trees. Taking it away from the farm and seeing that they are destroyed by burning. New suckers using tissue culture should be introduced for a fresh crop. Even after that for at least three months, spraying of pesticide should be done to ensure that the infestation in the hills is fully removed.

A farmer showing pest-attacked hill banana plant at Thenmalai on Sirumalai hills near Dindigul.

A farmer showing pest-attacked hill banana plant at Thenmalai on Sirumalai hills near Dindigul. | Photo Credit: G. Karthikeyan

This is an arduous task, say many farmers, who have moved away from bananas to cultivation of beans and chayote squash (chow chow). Now, interspersed among coffee crop and pepper are rows and rows of trellis bearing these vegetables.

The altitude of Sirumalai, which was seen as conducive for the lush growth of the GI-tagged banana, may also prove to be its downfall. With night temperature hovering at around 18 degree centigrade and with high humidity level, it is the perfect climate for the  bunchy top virus to flourish and propagate. 

“We are hoping that at least the last few plants of this variety will survive for another three years,” says Mr. Murugan, who is planning to take up coffee cultivation.

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