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Kumaraguru, a farmer from Kotagiri, inside his polyhouse where he grows sweet passion fruit

Passion fruit finds value and rises in the south

Shree Padre, Kasaragod

Published: Jun. 28, 2024
Updated: Jul. 04, 2024

A little known fruit, synonymous with the northeast, is finding takers in the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Passion fruit is the rising star among fruits. Due to increasing demand for sweet, edible passion fruit and not the juice, farmers are scrambling to find the right varieties, even during their travels abroad.

What has fuelled this demand? Dengue fever. About a decade ago, dengue raged across Kerala for a full year. Doctors began recommending passion fruit to patients to increase their platelet count. People started asking around for the fruit for their sick relatives. This sudden demand alerted shopkeepers who began seeking out the fruit.

Whatever the scientific truth, the general belief across Kerala is that passion fruit is good for dengue and for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. In Kerala, zilla panchayats, Kudumbasree (Self-Help Groups) and Krishi Bhavans began promoting passion fruit and distributing plants. 

Soon, passion fruit processing companies got into the act. Idukki became a hub of sorts with two large companies producing passion fruit squash. Smaller units followed. Along highways, stalls began selling passion fruit sherbet. In southern Kerala, passion fruit juice is now the most popular ‘welcome drink’ at weddings.

But, over the years, consumption of the whole fruit began to outpace the juice drinking. “The quantity that goes for processing has declined. People are eating the whole fruit. I think the ratio is 60:40,” says Jomy Mathew, an award-winning farmer who grows about 90 tonnes of passion fruit every year on his farms near Shimoga.

“I sell to traders in Kannur and Kozhikode apart from selling to Fruit Valley, our farmer-producer company. Most of my fruit is consumed whole, as a table fruit. The seconds are sent for processing and I earn less from them,” he says.

The demand is for the sweet variety with a longer shelf life. Shiju Kappumel G., a farmer in Wayanad, grows passion fruit on three acres and sells mostly online. He sensed that customers only wanted to buy the sweeter variety. He sold about one tonne, mostly to customers in Bengaluru. But after some time he ran into a problem. His customers complained his fruits had a very short shelf life. Shiju has now found a variety that lasts longer and is all set to grow it for sale.

The passion fruit which has been traditionally popular is Passiflore ligularis or sweet granadilla, locally called the Kodaikanal passion fruit. It’s a convenient table fruit, ready to eat. All you need to do is press it between two fingers and enjoy the white pulp which pops out. The edible seeds are nutritious too and high in Vitamin C.

This is the only sweet passion fruit that is commercially grown in our country. It is not easy to scale up cultivation because it requires an  elevation of 1,000 to 1,500 metres above sea level to grow well.

However, passion fruit or Krishna phala is a farmer-friendly crop. It grows on a vine and starts yielding fruit from the first year itself. It fruits once or twice a year and doesn’t require much nurturing. The fruit is native to the southern Brazil region. In south India, it is being grown in Kerala, Karnataka and parts of Tamil Nadu. 

Every time dengue strikes, demand for the fruit rockets. Says Joemon Jose, deputy manager of marketing at the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council Keralam (VFPCK), “Our farmer members bring small quantities of marketable excess for selling. Generally, they get an average price of Rs 40 per kg. During dengue fever period, the price rises to Rs 70.”

Abdul Jabbar of Kannur, a passion fruit trader, sells 500 tonnes of passion fruit annually to supermarkets in Kerala and Karnataka and in West Asia. “After Covid, eating passion fruit to build immunity has  become a trend,” he says.

 

SEARCH FOR PLANTS

In India, there are only four or five varieties of passion fruit. The Indian Institute of Horticulture Research (IIHR) has released a hybrid variety named Kaveri. The Kerala Agriculture University’s variety is called 134-P. 

Passion fruits are known by the colour of their rind which is yellow, red or purple. The yellow ones are known to be sour and are used for juicing. The purple ones are sweeter and can be eaten whole.

“Of late, we find customers don’t ask for sherbet or squash. They ask us to cut fresh fruit, sprinkle some salt or sugar over it and give it to them with a spoon,” says Sajeev Uchchakkavil, manager of the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) in Kasaragod which has also pioneered passion fruit cultivation. Interestingly, farmers are consuming the fruit too and not just selling it.

PCK has three farms in different locations with a sales outlet in each where passion fruit squash, fresh sherbet and fresh fruits are sold.                   

Due to the limited varieties available, farmers have been looking beyond Indian shores for better and sweeter versions of passion fruit. “My last visit to Indonesia confirmed my impression that they have sweet passion fruits. A new market would open up for us if some of these varieties succeed in our environment,” says Anil Balanja, a well-known grower of exotic fruit from Balthangady in Karnataka.

“The climate of Indonesia and south India are almost the same. We have to bring Indonesian sweet passion fruit varieties here and start experimenting. If it turns out to be like the sweet Kodaikanal passion fruit it will click in the market."

Shops at Kodaikanal attract tourist by handing sweet passion fuits this way

Balachandra Hegde Sayimane, a farmer from Uttara Kannada, went on  a tour to Hainan island in China a few years ago to participate in an agricultural exhibition. He spotted a company that was promoting ‘golden harvest’ hybrid passion fruit. It was very sweet. Sayimane brought back some seeds and planted them on his farm. The vines grew well and produced fruits of the same taste. He gifted some seeds to two farmer friends. There, too, the vines replicated and yielded the same sweet fruits.

Madhu Kollakattu, a farmer in Idukki, possesses a rare cultivar of passion fruit. Its rind is deep red and it is not sour at all. He says it was gifted to him by an American tourist. It yields sweet fruit.

Another farmer, Anas P.K. from Narikunni near Kozhikode, has grown about 40 varieties of passion fruit sourced from Thailand, Malaysia and Ecuador in the past 18 years. The one from Ecuador, called Passiflora affinis, is very sweet.

What are the traits of good passion fruit which can be eaten whole? “It should be less sour with a thin rind. It should contain more pulp, be a little watery and palatable without added salt or sugar. The variety we have satisfies all these qualifications,” says Jacob Francis Challisery whose father grows exotic fruits, including passion fruit, on a large scale in Dakshina Kannada district.

“People are turning away from beverages with added sugar. This is the right time to introduce passion fruit as a table fruit,” he says.

Most of these varieties do not have names; nor has anyone cared to document them. The next step is for IIHR, the KVKs or agricultural universities to study all the farmer varieties being grown. Farmer organizations can support such studies. An online meeting of all passion fruit farmers would be a good start.

“All these cultivars that farmers claim are good to eat whole need to be shortlisted and scientifically evaluated. Then the best ones can be propagated to interested farmers,” says Dr Vijay Sulladmath who retired as principal scientist of IIHR and has researched passion fruit.

He points out that to raise a gene pool would take time. So he suggests collecting all possible information from farmers and making a selection. Then, by 2026 we would have at least three or four varieties that can be grown and introduced in the market. All the necessary components are there — cultivars, innovative farmers and enthusiastic scientists.

 

THE RIGHT HEIGHT

Let’s turn to Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, India’s hotspot for passion fruit. It is grown in Dindigul and Nilgiri districts of the state.

The Kodaikanal passion fruit is orange, egg-shaped and smaller in size than other varieties. Its white pulp has no flavour. From there the fruit is sent to Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Goa. The biggest customer is Bengaluru.  During the peak season the price rises to Rs 1,200 to Rs 3,500 for a 14-kg pack.

The lower Palani hills area in Dindigul district is the biggest producer of the fruit. But not many farmers grow it. They say they earn much more by growing coffee, avocado and banana together. Also, short-duration exotic vegetables fetch better returns.

However, Coonoor is emerging as an important hub of passion fruit cultivation, with it replacing oranges, the traditional crop. “Kotagiri was an orange valley at one time. Oranges have totally vanished now. Sweet passion fruit is easier to grow and needs less management,” says Kumaraguru, a farmer from Kotagiri.

He has been growing passion fruit professionally in pandals. His farm is 30 km from Ooty and 1,800 metres above sea level. Initially, he grew passion fruit in polyhouses. His trial cultivation during the monsoon was successful. But in summer the vines started scorching so he installed micro sprinklers inside the polyhouses. He gets his best crop in winter and sells through his own marketing unit called Sigma to buyers in Coimbatore and online for Rs 240 per kg.

In Idukki district the fruit is called the Munnar passion fruit. It has two seasons and is available in markets for five to six months. It is tourists who have popularized the Kodaikanal passion fruit. Local shops hang up the fruit with twines in Munnar and Kodaikanal. One passion fruit costs between Rs 5 and Rs 20. From Munnar, fruits are despatched to cities like Bengaluru and Chennai.

In the forested areas of Kandalloor, tribals pluck these fruits and bring them to the market. Being a wild crop, it doesn’t require much attention. Farmers get between Rs100 and Rs 150 per kg for the fruit. Most homes here have two or three vines of passion fruit which give them good returns of Rs 1,000 per kg, even if all other crops fail. Propagation is easy, though harvesting is difficult.

It is believed that the British introduced passion fruit in Kandalloor and Vattavada panchayats of Idukki district. An exotic winter vegetable is the main crop of this area. This is why passion fruit hasn’t attracted farmers seriously.  

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