Not all apple trees need the mountains to flourish. Some do just fine on balconies, and are becoming popular in low-altitude cities like Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru
When multimedia artist Vivek Vilasini returned to his apartment after a seven-day quarantine in a Bengaluru hotel, he found a delightful surprise waiting for him. The two-year-old Anna apple plant on his balcony had borne fruit in his absence. His Granny Smith plant had also blossomed. “The COVID-19 gloom vanished with that one sight,” exclaims Vivek who shared the fruit with his family and his excitement on social media.
“A silent revolution is taking place,” says Noushad Parvez, Research Associate, Dissemination and Social Diffusion Department of National Innovation Foundation, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Three varieties of apples — Anna, Dorsett Golden and HRMN-99 aka Hariman — are being grown at low altitudes (below 3,000 ft) and high temperatures (45°C) across the country, as they require only 150-200 hours of cool conditions per year compared to high-altitude apples that need 1,000 or more hours below 7 degrees Celsius. “Progressive farmers and some organisations have been conducting trials across 29 states for the last five years and we are getting very encouraging results,” says Noushad.
The seeds of this innovation go back to 1999, when Bilaspur-based farmer Hariman Sharma discovered a fruit-bearing apple seedling in his courtyard. He developed the low-chill variety HRMN-99 (named after him) with strategic grafting, possibly with plum. The Apple Man of India, as he is known, received recognition from all quarters including an award from the President in 2017.
Initially there was some doubt about its validity, recalls surgeon Dr KC Sharma from Jammu who has been providing HRMN-99 saplings to growers across the country. “How can apples grow in summer, was the big question. We undertook a top-down route to popularise it.” He approached people “in high positions”, and encouraged them to plant the variety in their home gardens. Fifty-four plants were sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The experiment was validated when apples grew on these plants.
“It can be grown anywhere in India, says Sharma. “It is growing on balconies of Mumbai buildings in 300-litre plastic drums with proper drainage. It is growing from Kerala to Manipur. Our slogan is one plant in each house.”
Noushad points out that a similar project in the 1970s had failed and so “these trials and their success is causing great thrill among farmers. The Kashmiri apple is harvested in September and eaten through the year from cold storage. The low-chill apple is harvested in June. A plant bears fruit in the first two years and, as it matures, the fruit size grows and weighs almost 180 gm. It yields grow better as well. The plant can thrive in temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius. With the right packaging and practices, this is a hopeful time for the low-chill apple.” Noushad is monitoring and addressing the challenges faced by farmers.
Rupesh T Sonawane, who is popularising the fruit in Maharashtra with great success, says he has supplied “almost 50,000 plants to various farmers and farms. The first harvest of 200 kilograms from a farm near Pune was sold during the lockdown at ₹80/kg. Many WhatsApp groups connect the low-chill apple orchards.” Rupesh is nurturing 1,800 plants at Talegaon in Pune district, and is excited about the size, colour and weight of the fruits — 60% red in colour, 200gm each and the size of a Kashmiri apple.
The harvest down South
In 2014, horticulturist Dr Venkatapathi Reddiar grew five apple trees as an experiment on his farm at Koodapakkam near Puducherry, to prove that apples could grow in the subtropics. Kendre Balaji, a progressive farmer in Asifabad, Telangana, took up a similar challenge with 10 plants in 2015. He now has over 500 trees and was feted by the Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao. “Each tree bears 30-40 fruits that weigh between 180-200 gm each. I am now looking to go commercial.”
An excited Vivek is looking forward to the apples fruiting at his food forest in Munnar, Kerala, where he has planted 10 trees. He cites Science — which includes climate change and plant migration — as a reason for this success. “Many plants from the Himalayas are found in the Palani Hills and in Munnar. Some plants need a bit of cold to activate them. Apples adapt. After Anna has borne fruit, I am sure I am in for more surprises,” he says, hoping to invite apple lovers over to taste his harvest soon.
For apple seedlings contact: Hariman Sharma farms 0941867209; NIF: 0276461131/32 or www.nig.org.in
The Mysore apple
It is believed that, around 300 years ago a variety called the Mysore apple grew in abundance in the city state and was patronised by the Maharajah. With Anglo- Mysore wars, the patronage ended and it lost its popularity.
Old timers in Bengaluru remember the apple orchards of Lalbagh with great fondness.