Extract from Part One: Wild
Memang Narang - Garo Hills, India
In north-east India, close to the Himalayas and the border with Myanmar, Bangladesh and China, is the state of Meghalaya. It’s an area of exceptional biodiversity. Scientists believe that within the wild forests here there could be genetic traits that we’ve lost from the world’s commercial citrus crop and which we may well need for the future. In the densely forested Garo Hills of Meghalaya grows a wild citrus called memang narang (scientific name: Citrus indica). The fruit is a reminder that flavours as well as precious genetics can become endangered. But the forests are under threat…
As medicine, memang narang is used as a cure for ailments such as colds and stomach aches and even (the ojha believe) smallpox. Tonics made from citrus can be found across Asia, particularly where the fruit still grows wild and so has a long history (in Myanmar as well as north-east India, and south-west China). Beliefs in the fruit’s medicinal powers travelled with it across the world; citrus features in ancient Greek medical texts and famously was used in the nineteenth century by the British Navy to combat scurvy. Today, all over the world, people feeling under the weather take citrus-flavoured vitamin C tablets and drink glasses of orange juice for their health.
The Khasi and Garo tribes also enjoy wild memang narang as food. The fruit is about 5cm in diameter and scarlet red when ripe, with a thin, soft skin. It looks like a mandarin but has the broad leaves of a citron, and to most of us, its taste would seem pretty extreme. ‘There’s an appreciation of sourness and bitterness in these communities the rest of the world has lost,’ says Phrang Roy [a renowned expert on Meghalaya’s indigenous cultures]. In fact, we didn’t just lose sourness and bitterness, it was methodically removed from our food. Plant breeders in the twentieth century, especially after the juice industry took off in the 1950s, focused on producing larger and sweeter oranges that could be transported around the world. The orange varieties selected had low levels of phenols, bitter-tasting (but also health-giving) compounds. This meant they appealed to the increasingly sweet global palate, but left the global crop more vulnerable to pests and diseases because the bitter chemicals present in wild citrus such as memang narang are a big part of the plant’s natural defences. As we reduce these compounds in our quest for more sweetness, farmers have to compensate and protect the fruit with more chemical sprays.
Much of the Garo Hills are still unexplored by botanists and seed collectors, and it’s likely there are more citrus species here yet to be catalogued by outsiders. In the 1930s, plant explorers who reached the hills, and further north into Assam, described seeing immense landscapes of undisturbed wild citrus trees…But researchers on field trips in the twenty-first century no longer find the same level of diversity. Illegal logging, road building and agriculture have decimated vast areas where wild citrus grew.
The genome of Citrus indica is yet to be sequenced by the team researching the origins and evolution of citrus. ‘We know it’s ancient and it could be a critical link in the citrus story,’ says Fred Gmitter, a world authority on citrus at the University of Florida and a member of the team doing the genome work. ‘It could even be the original ancestor of all citrus.’