India’s Exotic Northeast
An almost magical, bio-diverse richness pervades the landscape of India’s Northeastern states. Perched at the confluence of the Indian-Malayan, Indo-Chinese and Indian bio-geographical ecosphere, the region supports diverse habitats of equally diverse, endemic floras and faunas.
Because of the southward declivity of the Eastern Himalayas, the climate of Northeast India is distinct from other Himalayan regions, endowing it with warmer mean temperatures, higher rainfall and fewer frost days.
836 of the Indian subcontinent’s 1200 bird species are found here, making the region an Endemic Bird Area. Of the 9 vegetation types found in India, 6 are in the Northeast. Bird diversity and population is definitely a treasure that has a healthy effect upon plant species. A 2003 survey reported that around 80 bird species were sighted in the temperate forest area around upper Shillong, which is good news because birds are balance-keepers of the fragile ecosystem.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has identified it as a rice germplasm region, and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) declared the region as home to wild relatives of crop plants.
Meghalaya’s Temperate Jewel – the East Khasi Hills
Meghalaya – home of the clouds – and one of the eight North-eastern states has a sub-tropical, tropical and temperate climate.
Sitting atop the central plateau section is Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills district. The region bears features of a gently undulating plateau, and quite flat at the top. Its geographical area is 2,748 Sq. Kms, located between 25°07” & 25°41” N and 91°21” & 92°09” E. Rapid flowing rivers criss-cross the region, forming deep valleys and gorges, and steep ravines. The altitude is an ideal range of 1500m to 1966m of undulating hills and rolling meadows. Overall the climate stays pleasant all year round though winter temperatures can dip as low as -3°C and summers as high as 27°C. Rainfall is abundant – 4877mm annually.
Incidentally, the wettest place on earth –Mawsynram-Cherrapunji— average annual rainfall 12000mm, is located in the district.
The East Khasi hills’ climate varies from sub-tropical in the northern reaches to sub-tropical in the southern borders. The central or the Shillong plateau region is marked by a hilly physiography, rapid flowing rivers, deep river valleys and gorges, and steep ravines. The district’s upper regions above 1500m enjoy a balmy sub-alpine temperate climate.
Shillong Peak is its most distinctive point. Standing high at 1966m above mean sea level, one can have an eagle’s eye view of Shillong city below, 10 kilometres away, and as far as the distant snow-capped Himalayas to the north.
Meghalaya’s Temperate Crop Treasures
Meghalaya’s wide range of agro-climatic conditions supports an astonishing variety of floras and faunas. From the lowlands to the highlands an array of fruits and vegetables grow, along with plantations crops and medicinal plants. Many of these are still hidden treasures waiting to be discovered and capitalised upon.
Tropical and subtropical crops like rice, maize, bananas, jackfruits, pineapples, spices etc are well known all over the State but it is the temperate crops that possess massive and yet untapped potential to enter hitherto unexplored markets. The temperate zones of the East Khasi hills are fertile and ideal grounds for their cultivation. Plum, peach, pear, walnut, kiwi, passion fruit, besides temperate vegetables, are some examples. All of these crops have high export potential.
Mushrooms – White Treasures
Button mushrooms are high value, high demand but so far low volume crops. Highly nutritious and containing all essential amino acids, they are sometimes called the vegetarian’s meat. They are immune system boosters and contain polysaccharides, compounds proven to inhibit certain tumour growths. Button mushrooms need temperatures from 22°C to 25°C during spawn run and 14°C to 18°C during fruiting. They are already cultivated with some success in high reaches of Laitlum and Nongkrem around the Shillong Peak region. The demand for button mushroom is very high but cultivation is minimal.
Other viable mushroom varieties, easier to grow, are the oyster and shiitake. Besides, hidden in the forests are a good number of edible wild mushrooms.
The Cups that Cheer
Not every State could boast of two favourite crops that could turn fortunes: Tea and Coffee.
Promoted since the mid-seventies, the highlands of Meghalaya and its climate proved perfect for tea plantation. Once one tastes Meghalaya tea it is impossible to go back to other teas. In fact, the A2V Darjeeling variety grown in Bah Syiem’s garden in Sohryngkham atop the Shillong Plateau is reported to taste better than the original.
Coffee plantation is relatively new but the variety grown here boasts of high quality. Mynriah village, located about 40 Kms south of Shillong at 1300m, is already growing — though in small-scale — low-caffeine, sweeter, fruitier, softer tasting Coffea Arabica . This species thrives best at altitudes higher than 600m. The other harsher, higher caffeine variety, Robusta, is also grown at lower altitudes of 600m or below in Ri-Bhoi district.
Sacred Groves – Treasures from the Past
Perhaps the most valued temperate treasures are the unique, one of a kind in the world Sacred Groves. Spread across the Khasi and Jaintia Hills Districts they are a legacy of the ancestors and a compendium of the spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices of the Khasi tribe. Though covering only about 10,000 hectares of land, the groves have, since time immemorial, conserved intact and perfectly undisturbed, the true and pristine natural biodiversity inside their environs.
The groves are a priceless gift, and wonderful lesson in conservation, from the wise and visionary ancestors.
No invasive species threaten to destroy the groves. They continue to remain home to rich and original floras and faunas. If this ingenious method of traditional natural resource management is adopted at other places, judiciously integrating it with modern scientific processes, it would create a fantastic value chain of highly sustainable bio-diversity oasis.
Medicinal Plants and Spices – Priceless Treasures
Among the most valued of temperate treasures of Meghalaya are the medicinal plants. An amazing 834 species with medicinal properties are on record, catering to primary, even secondary, health needs of the people. The temperate zone is home to plant species with medicinal properties like Pennywort (Centella asiatica), Walnut (Juglans regia), Rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum), Khasi pine (Pinus khasiana), Himalayan birch (Betula alnoides), Magnolia – (Manglieta caveana) and many more treasured species.
The Last Word
We can see some of the temperate treasures of Meghalaya. Hidden in plain sight, they wait to be tapped and judiciously utilized, and enriched. The factors for these treasures are a combination of the harmonic gifts of nature, native wisdom and inclusive culture. Using our intellect it is easy to enhance their worth. Unfortunately, the reverse can also be true. That’s why at Zizira we continuously strive to explore to preserve and enrich. Come, look us up and join hands in exploring the underutilized.