Farewell, Ponnus

Even as a well-loved, rare, indigenous mango tree faces the axe, a collective in Kerala is quickly working towards conserving its legacy via seedlings and grafting

August 2, Sunday, will be a gloomy day for the thousand-odd members of Naadan Mavukal, a collective on a mission to protect and preserve Kerala’s indigenous mango trees. One of their favourite trees, affectionately named Ponnus, is to be felled by its owners on that day.

Ponnus is at a home in Kollengode, Palakkad district, Kerala. For at least 40 years continuously, it has been producing over 2,000 mangoes during the season (from December to June). However, the household is in need of a car porch and Ponnus has to go, for it occupies the space earmarked for the porch.

“An official documentation of indigenous mango trees has not been done and this is the only tree of its kind that we have identified,” says Sakhil Raveendran, who heads the Thrissur-based collective. He says he found the rare native tree last year, while on one of his “mango tree hunts”. Fascinated by the sweetness of the mangoes and the peculiarities of the tree, Sakhil added it to the group’s native directory, which has listed about 200 distinct varieties of indigenous mango trees so far. He named it Ponnus (which roughly translates to darling).

Ponnus is short compared to other native mango trees  

Unlike commonly found indigenous mango trees, Ponnus is shorter (a little short of a two-storied building) with shorter branches. “It is a delight to see Ponnus during the mango season. Each branch has a bunch of mangoes, and each bunch has no less than five mangoes. Each mango weighs up to 150 gms,” Sakhil says. The flavour is distinctive, characterised by a hint of camphor. The skin is ashen-green in colour.

Sakhil and his team have collected its seeds as part of the group’s Indigenous Mango Tree Conservation Project, and currently have about 100-150 seedlings. “The seedlings are very small and need intense care to grow. This may have been one of the reasons why the tree has not been able to propagate naturally,” says Sakhil. The seedlings will be given to members of the group across Kerala in two weeks.

Sakhil believes that grafting can ensure the preservation of the variety. Hence the group has requested experts from nurseries and officials from the Agricultural University, Mannuthy, to collect graft buds from Ponnus before it is felled, says Sakhil. The group is usually resistant to grafting, as they believe in the natural propagation of a tree. “However, in rare cases such as this, grafting is the only option,” says Sakhil.

Though the group tried its best to dissuade the family from felling Ponnus, it looks like the tree will be forced to say ‘goodbye’. A few months ago, the group saved a similar polyembryonic native mango tree, called Jailor. It was the last surviving tree of its kind in Kerala, but had to be felled due to the threat caused by its branches to the house. Fortunately, the group intervened and collected grafts. Jailor is now beginning to sprout in different parts of the State.

Seedlings of Ponnus mango tree  

“We have lost several unsung indigenous varieties due to a lack of awareness. Kanimangalam in Thrissur had three Eucalyptus mango trees (named thus for the hint of eucalyptus in flavour), all of which have been felled. Someone who loved the taste of the mango got a single graft and that is the only remaining sapling,” says Sakhil.

The members of the group are hopeful their conservation efforts will bear fruit. Sakhil says, “We hope, with the grafting efforts and seedlings, at least 2,000 Ponnus mango trees would get a chance to grow.”

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