Rashmi Talwar

Gurez Floral Wealth:  Rich Resources, Rich Returns 

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Om Parkash Sharma ‘Vidyarthi’

Om Parkash Sharma ‘Vidyarthi’, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests J&K, a man of the wild woods, could easily compete with Google on instant answers about plants, botanical names, uses, and properties. And like Google he can keep unfolding the cabbage layers of the greenies, their medicinal value, folklore, fragrance, and everything else, he can go and on.
No wonder his talent took the form of “Tree Talks” pioneered, conducted, and built over more than a decade, a formidable record of 1180 Tree Talks that started in 2010 across the nation and internationally too. His first international tree talk was held in Vancouver Canada. He held Tree Talks in most areas of Jammu & Kashmir, in groves, roadsides, hills, riversides, parks, homes, marshlands, in tree trunks, crevices, anywhere. As if his audio airtime felt insufficient, his love for cosmos found outpourings on paper and went on to grow into 46 books.
Addressed lovingly by his pen name ‘Vidyarthi’ the forest man’s singular achievement is – First and Only IFS officer to bag the coveted Sahitya Academy Award for his book “Trip Trip Chete’ in 2002, a travelogue resonating with the music of nature. His writings- in Prose or Poetry, of Trees or Trips, in Travels or Tales, transport you deep within a blooming bud, the fervent rustle of shedding leaves, the might of a seed pushing out to catch sun rays, or the slow gliding bird, the open arms of mountains, the home hurrying bird on tangerine skies.

Om Parkash Sharma ‘Vidyarthi’, talks to the Author about Gurez, and its flora and vegetative treasures.

ZOON BUTTI, medicinal herb Artemisia maritima’s silvery-white gauzy leaves, named after Habba Khatoon.

 Q. Mr.Vidyarthi, you authored 46 books on flora laced them with your poetry, and folklore, penned about medicinal uses to humanity; is any book or portion, devoted to the flora of ‘Gurez’?

A. Yes, how could I miss Gurez, I call it the ‘Splendorous abode of the Almighty’ – I wrote a book- “Ecotourism Destinations- Gurez Gangbal & Gulmarg” in the year 2009.
Some of my other books on flora, fauna, books on poetry, short stories, garden flowers, and medicinal plants, include – ‘Wild & cultivated Plants of Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh’; ‘Plants of Parks & gardens’; ‘Medicinal plants of Plains & Hills’; ‘Forest Flora of Kashmir’; Eco stories on Plants and animals-2017; Illustrated Dictionary of Flora and Fauna-2011; Wild edible plants of Jammu & Kashmir -2019; Forest flora of Kashmir; Tree Talk Travels 2011; ‘Wildflowers for eco-tourists & naturalists- 2010’ and many more
Books in Dogri language to English, Hindi and 16 of them bilinguals; alongside, I coined nearly 6000 scientific terms, for flora in three regions of Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh. “Gurez is unique and I am a collector of information about the most mysterious, it could never have escaped my vision”, he smiles

Q. Since Gurez is a valley; it has ample potential for fruit, vegetables and medicinal herbs. The mighty Kishanganga River- a source of pure water in the region gives it an added gut to cultivate rare flora, what are the possibilities in your opinion?
A. The possibilities in Gurez are endless. The terrain has sweeping areas, rich alluvial soils, water proximity, and water-laden air conditions; in this scenario, terrace agriculture is already in progress and can be further improved upon to add newer varieties with help from Army. The army itself has been instrumental in bringing many uplifting changes in the region including an army school, which is emerging as the best in the border territories for inculcating new and vocationally linked skills. These chapters could also embrace agricultural practices for new and rare plant cultivation. Alongside the poly-house concept of growing vegetables long beyond autumn is a possibility too.

Q. It is also believed that the foothills of the unique mountain peak named after the poet queen Habba Khatoon is home to a rich bouquet of medicinal plants; could you shed light on that?

A. Habba Khatoon peak has a sacred Grove surrounding the peak with a natural spring or ‘chashma’ named after the Queen poetess; this habitat is a good source of mountain cumin, Kala Zeera, or Black Cumin (Buniumpersicum), used as a condiment. The spice fetches a remarkable market value. However, a trial to cultivate the crop has not yielded much so far. Agricultural Department started a germplasm improvement program, at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, (SKUAST) Kashmir; the mountain cumin however got some success at Pampore- the womb of saffron cultivation and the birthplace of Habba Khatoon. Gurez area also bears unique plants like Syringaemodi- Himalayan Liliac, Sea-buckthorn Hippophaerhamnoides growing along the Kishanganga River that can be exploited for edible, medicinal products as per techniques developed by China. Interestingly, its value can be gauged by the fact that a national body is created for this plant named “The Seabuckthorn Association of India”.

Q. Any folklore tales connected to the flora of Gurez, mountain queen &poetess of Kashmir?

A. The medicinal herb Artemisia maritimas with its silvery-white charming gauzy leaves, stands named in Gurez’s Mountain Queen’s honour as Zoon, Sheski, or Mooi. ‘Zoon’ which means Moon denoting the moonlike beauty of Zooni (Habba Khatoon’s childhood name) possesses qualities for digestion and improving liver function and is anti-malarial.
The plant is not only floral decorative but has a lovely fragrance. It has such a strong fragrance that a person sitting in the back seat of a bus with a bag of sheshki, could be smelled in the driver’s seat. It can be seen near the Jawahar Tunnel area- the Gateway to Kashmir, Limber wildlife sanctuary Baramulla, and around Gurez valley. I noticed locals harvest this aromatic plant. Its silvery moon-like appearance made it apt to be named after the poetess whose name was also moon or ‘Zoon’ in Kashmiri.
Another plant dedicated to the Queen is ‘Shama-Zoon’ or Shamadi, (Podophyllumhexandrum), a plant possessing an anti-cancer drug. Himalayan May Apple. But this one is still uncertain, although attaching zoon as a suffix indicates its connection.

Q. Some rare plants are found here including gas plants or torchlight plants? How did such an amazing names come about?

A. Interestingly the area possesses Dictamnus Albus Dittany or Burning bush a decorative beautiful flower, also called the torchlight plant.
Incidentally, this unique plant has gained an award of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. Its further propagation & cultivation is recommended as fragrance emitting and possessing medicinal properties. The Torchlight Plant got its name from the fact that once the daughter of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus ignited a matchstick near the plant and it caught fire. The Torchlight plant actually catches fire in a bit of warmth. More than 100 chemical constituents were isolated from this genus. Foothills and nearby Habba Khatoon peak is its favourite haunt. Gurezi Folklore has it – the plants act like royal torches as ‘santari’ or guards to the Royal abode of the Queen Habba Khatoon- the mountain peak.
For the Shina-speaking locals of Gurez, Habba Khatoon commands great reverence. Alternately, in Kashmir, it is rare to see a mountain named after a woman.

Q. Can a herb park, exotic vegetables, or exotic fruit orchards, be etched in this paradisiacal valley of Gurez?
A. Gurez has high altitude topography; plants of pastoral grasslands are found aplenty here. Since the growing season is shorter, restricted to 4-5 months, growing exotic vegetables could come around as a program for women empowerment in keeping with the reverence for the female form of Habba Khatoon.
Almost all European exotic vegetables can be grown here with active assistance from the army which already has a High Altitude Laboratory at Gulmarg, Kashmir or ‘Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) Leh, Ladakh- the laboratory is already screening and identifying high altitude medicinal and aromatic plants to use them for defense purposes and also on greenhouse technology for cultivation at high altitude and cold desert conditions. Similarly, poly-houses or greenhouses could also serve the purpose of growing vegetables even during light snows. Most Gurezis dry the summer vegetables, threading them as garlands and hanging them from windows and balconies, to use and consume during the winter months.
Q. You mean people of Gurez will be able to enjoy eating and growing colorful red, yellow, capsicums, and purple cabbage!!
A. Yes, growing and enjoying them, as well as supplying them to the army and exporting them to the mainland. Vegetables such as baby corn, baby cabbage, zucchini, purple cabbage, kales, snow peas, leeks, parsley celery, broccoli, dragon beans, ice cabbages, bokchoy, cherry tomatoes, lettuce have a huge market in the country itself. The Gurez area is known for organic farming, it could easily beat the competition with ‘Pure, Organic, Mountain grown’ taglines. The local population may not have a taste for them initially but developing tourism would be great. Also, fresh produce could be supplied to the army which has to make do with a lot of canned food.
Likewise, organically grown exotic fresh herbs, oregano, dill, sage, and rosemary could prove a game-changer for packaged dry herbs, alternately, dry herbs could also be manifested during the winter months.
Another cash crop in great demand is lavender farming.
Exotic fruit orchard is not a viable proposition as the landholdings are small and fruits take a lot of care and grooming to produce years later after being planted. However, varieties that are natives like cherry, walnuts also apricots have huge potential along with apples, peaches, and pears.

Q. Is there more Gurezi plant life that can make the region prosperous?

A. Summer crops –Buckwheat, Potato, Maize, Amaranth, Pumpkins, peas, apples, kidney beans. The area is rich in Hazelnut in the wilderness, pecan nuts can also be grown here, and forest nut named Shahthor in Shina, Virin in Kashmiri has good potential for cultivation in the area. Besides hazelnut, Kanship fruit- Sorbuslanata, fondly eaten by locals needs to be put under cultivation trials by the Horticulture department. Walnuts are another crop that has rich potential in the area but their germ plasma needs genetic improvement.

Q. Himachal Pradesh is on the road to growing asafoetida or hing which ideally comes from freezing regions of Afghanistan.
A. Wild hing/asafoetida is already prevalent here in Gurez; hence the possibility of hing cultivation is superb.
Q. Is there any proposal to trigger widespread cultivation of the Morchella mushroom of Gurez considered a real delicacy?
A. The uniqueness of Morchella or Guchchii mushroom referred as ‘shanteel’ in Gurez has huge market demand. Not only was this mushroom much sought after but the mystery surrounding their growth and places where they are found are kept a closely guarded secret. Hence not only its consumption, but the entire ‘Morchella Mushroom Story’, complete with its hiding spots and why was it kept a secret, could turn out to be a unique selling point or the ‘stand out’ attraction for tourists to Gurez.
Q. Himachal is also looking at saffron, kiwi, dragon fruit, persimmon, cultivation? Is it possible to do its cultivation here? Prospects of food processing, juices, cut pieces, malt, sauces, jams, skewed fruit?
A. Yes saffron and all these are possible but the area for cultivation is smaller and should be thoughtfully allocated for crops, and other flora cultures, remember fruit trees are permanent and need more care. Consequently, medicinal plants, floriculture, exotic vegetables & herbs in my view would be best other than local fruits on the peripheries of fields. These could be possible only with army support.
Q. What about oil extraction from fruit seeds? Incense oils, body, face & massage oils?
A. Yes, it is possible provided the raw material is produced here. Otherwise, a more central area for setting up such a plant would be more feasible with production from all surrounding areas to keep the machines running.
Q. What about fisheries?
A. Abundantly.
Q. Bee keeping and honey production?
A. Absolutely
Q. Is pearl cultivation possible?
A. Haven’t much knowledge about this but looking at weather conditions in comparison with New Zealand and the similarity in regions, it may be possible and if it is, it would prove to be a huge tourist attraction, I should say.
Author’s Note
During this one-to-one talk, the sole motive of our conversation was to raise the need to retain the hardy village folks within the border region to save its beauty, its innocence, and cultural heritage and practices from going extinct. For this, the government needs to look within, at the rich resources that this region is naturally endowed with; the clean air, purest waters, and temperatures that are conducive to many vegetables, fruits, flowers, and flora products like grass, straw, moss as well as out of the box thinking and bringing in success stories from other regions. No industrial backup is required and the area can be suffused with unique occupations and jobs thereon. The government and army together could introduce new agricultural, floricultural medi-cultural practices so that the region becomes self-sustainable and monetarily rich. Should other cash-rich practices like silkworm cultivation be started? It would be for the experts to take a call


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