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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Black Pepper

From times immemorial, Black Pepper was a major component in world trade and continues to be very important even today. It also played a major role in world history. Voyages undertaken to distant lands were primarily  in search of pepper and other spices. Chance  discovery of the Americas and their colonisation by the European powers could be attributed to this very much sought after commodity. Provenance of black pepper on one hand brought riches to India but on the other hand it proved disastrous, for the sub continent got annexed eventually. India is the only country where this was grown from ancient times because of which the country had trade relationships with the Arabs, the Jews, the Roman Empire and the Chinese. Black Pepper was referred to as Black Gold then. The ships used to sail for Rome, laden with Pepper and other spices in exchange for Gold. The stuff used to be carried to other parts of Europe by land route even from the Arabian countries. It is said that the long trade between India and Rome resulted in depletion of the Roman Gold reserves to an all time low. Hoards of Roman Gold Coins discovered from the coastal areas of South India seem to support the above observation.

Apart from Black Pepper India is/was a producer of lot many other spices such as Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Nutmeg etc. Spices other than Black Pepper are widely grown elsewhere in South East Asian countries as well. May 20, 1498 would be considered as a black day for the Indians when the Portuguese explorer Vasco-da-Gama landed on the shores of South India near the port of Calicut (now Kozhikode). This saw Portugal establishing its trading centres on the Indian Soil and extending its business empire through out  South East by the turn of the 16th century. Portugal thus enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the spice trade. The other European powers followed suit and headed towards the East. By the 17th century, apart from the Portuguese, the Dutch, British, Danes and the French could also establish their ware houses for buying and stocking spices in various coastal areas of India. Eventually this paved the way for the colonisation of the Sub Continent.

We too have some Pepper Vines, at home in Kerala,  growing on Mango and Areca Nut trees/palms.  Kerala (South western part of India), because of the favourable climatic conditions had been the home for Black Pepper from ancient times. However, at our home, the growth is not very encouraging due to inadequate care. Still some of the vines do produce bunches of pepper adequate for home consumption. On my recent visit, I found one of the vines having long bunches of the fruit. I thought of using them for pickles. On examination I found some fruits having turned pink. This is supposed to be an indication that the fruits are ripe enough to be harvested. If they are left out, birds get attracted and cause damage. However my plans of having some pickles were thwarted as by this time the seeds inside would have become harder and unsuitable for the purpose. Nevertheless I decided to pluck the bunches and did so by hand, standing under the vine. When the bunches became unapproachable, I used a ladder to climb up and pull them down. The yield was around 3 kgs which were put to dry in the Sun.

When the small round fruits completely dry out, they look black. The outer skin develops wrinkles and becomes course/rough. If the outer skin is removed, the white seed will peep out. This when powdered is known as “white pepper”. However, removal of the black skin causes deterioration in the medicinal properties of the seeds. Similarly there are other variants such as Red and Green. The red/green berries are picked and compelled to retain their colours through chemical processes.
Apart from their use as preservatives, as spice, for seasoning and on our dining tables, they possess immense medicinal properties. They are often  used for the treatment of Cholera and Bronchitis. Researchers have also found out that they help in the reduction of body fat. Capsaicin, an element contained in Black Pepper which is responsible for the pungent taste, is said to induce fat cells to disintegrate. Therefore they are supposed to be able to control/cure Cancer, Gastric Ulcers and Arthritis. Needless to say that it is desirable to increase the intake of Black Pepper and also as a substitute for Chillies.
Soon we may see them in a capsule form, prohibitively priced and some multinational companies claiming their patents.
We have a betel vine at home which looks somewhat similar to the Pepper vine. Here is a photograph for comparison.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wild growing vegetation at Paliakara

All  my brothers and sisters had assembled at our native place in Kerala to celebrate our father’s 100th birthday during November 2011. I was moving around the outer fencing and I found a wild growth of vegetation surrounding it. There were some unknown creepers as well with their beautiful blooms. It became irresistible for me and I called for a camera to honour them. Some of them looked closer to what we grow at our homes. It is not that they never grew in the past, simply put it,  they remained ignored. Perhaps they were considered as outcastes. I would appeal to my knowledgeable friends to help in their identification. Here they go: 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cannon Ball Tree

During my recent visit to Ernakulam (Kochi/Cochin), on a particular day, we were roaming about the street known as Broadway. It dawned on us that there is a very old temple belonging to a rich community known as Gowda Saraswat Brahmins (GSB in short) nearby. We found our way and reached the spot where the temple stood. However, the doors were closed. Disappointed, we were just exploring the surroundings. There was a small, modern shrine for the serpent Gods. However the huge stone pillars having cavities for lighting oil lamps seemed to belong to the distant past. Needless to say that it attracted our attention for the purpose of capturing them in our cameras.

Alongside there stood a huge tree with large spherical fruits hanging on its trunk. There were very many pinkish buds as well. The flowers were quite at a distance at the top and the withered ones were scattered on the ground.

The tree was a curiosity for all of us to look at. There was a guy nearby who told us its name as Nagamalli or Naga Pushpam. He also added that Hindus revere it as a sacred tree because the bowl shaped  flower,  within which there is a  circle of barren stamen, over which a hood resembling a serpent, stands. The flower is used as an offering in all Shiva temples. Incidentally in the main temple over there, the presiding deity is Vishnu and not Shiva.

The fruits are quite large. They  fall down when they mature making some noice. This explains as to why they are termed as cannon balls. People are advised not to stand below the tree lest they get injured. However when they fall down, the pulp within, fills the air with a kind of fowl smell. Interestingly the flowers have a very pleasant but strong fragrance. There is a myth associated with that scent. My mom says that if some one smells the flowers, keeping it very close to the nostrils, blood could ooze out of the nose.

By Hans Bernhard in Wikimedia Commons

The Cannonball Tree possesses antibiotic, antifungal, antiseptic and analgesic qualities. The trees are used to cure colds and stomach aches. Juice made from the leaves is used to cure skin diseases.  The inside of the fruit can disinfect wounds and young leaves ease toothache.

Though the tree is said to be a native of northern part of South America, they are found in many Shiva temple compounds in India. Likewise even Buddhists consider this tree as sacred and plant them in their Viharas (monasteries). The trees’ Indian connection is said to be over 2000 years old.

The scientific name of the tree is `Couroupita Guianensis` In Hindi it is  known as “Shiv Kamal” and some times referred to as “Top ka Gola” literally meaning Cannon Ball.