Wild berry gets a new cousin in Assam, but the ‘Great Hedge of India’ faces threat

Carissa kopilii is threatened by a hydroelectric project and water turned acidic

March 23, 2020 04:21 am | Updated 04:21 am IST - GUWAHATI

Carissa carandas

Carissa carandas

A multi-utility wild berry, whose thorny plant the British had used to build a barrier through India in the 1870s, has a hitherto unknown wilder cousin in Assam, a new study has revealed.

But unlike the abundant Carissa carandas, better known as karonda in Hindi, kalakkai in Tamil, koromcha in Bengali and karja tenga in Assamese, the Carissa kopilii is threatened by the very river it is named after — Kopili in central Assam. Reasons: a hydroelectric project on the river and water turned acidic because of coal mining in Meghalaya upstream.

It took Jatindra Sarma, Northern Assam Circle’s Conservator of Forests, four years to study the thorny plant whose berries are greenish and sour when raw and blackish and sweet when ripe.

The “sun-loving” plant was distributed sparsely, rooted in rocky crevices along the Kopili riverbed at altitudes ranging from 85-600 metres above sea level.

“The fruits were difficult to find amid a profusion of thorns. The pricks were worth it, as we established it as a new species, a wilder variety of the more familiar karjatenga ,” Mr. Sarma, one of the authors of the study, told The Hindu on Saturday.

The study, co-authored by Hussain A. Barbhuiya of Mumbai’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Santanu Dey of Nagaland University’s Department of Botany was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity .

Karja tenga has been used as a traditional herbal medicine for a number of ailments such as diarrhoea, anaemia, constipation, indigestion, skin infections and urinary disorders. The leaves have been used as fodder for silkworms while a paste of its pounded roots serves as a fly repellent.

The Carissa carandas was also among several thorny plants the British had grown 140 years ago for a 1,100-mile barrier apparently to enforce taxes and stop the smuggling of salt. In his book The Great Hedge of India, Roy Moxham had likened this short-lived barrier to the Great Wall of China.

Carissa kopilii, yielding white flowers from August-October and fruits from November-January, should have all the medicinal and utilitarian properties of its better-known cousin, but we have to ensure it survives the river that sustains it,” Mr. Sarma said.

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