The Healthy Gem of Ladakh: Seabuckthorn.
Berry Berry! Leh Berry!
Leh Berry Seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides L.) of the family Elaeagnaceae, known as Leh Berry is a thorny shrub growing from nine to twelve meters in height. These plants with ample branches have a life span of 100-150 years, can tolerate winter temperatures as low as -43 degrees Celsius and summer temperatures up to +40 degrees celsius. Additionally, the plant is considered drought tolerant. Seabuckthorn grows naturally in Ladakh without much human intervention and this actinorhizal plant has the distinctive characteristics of being able to grow in the low fertile soil of cold deserts. Sea buckthorn achieved a unique status in the trans-Himalayan region because of its medicinal and therapeutic potential. Each part of the plant; the fruit, branches, leaves, roots, and thorns have been traditionally used as medicine, nutritional supplement, fuel, and even fence. Therefore, rightfully acquiring names like "Golden Bush" or "Wonder Plant" and "Ladakh Gold"!
In Ladakh, seabuckthorn plants were also planted to control soil erosion because of their extensive roots. Typically, in a ten-year-old plant, the root would extend 537 cm horizontally and 127 cm vertically. The roots of Seabuckthorn also have a symbiotic association with bacterium belonging to the genus Frankia. This association fixes atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, thus increasing soil fertility in deserts. It is estimated that seabuckthorn plantations fix 180 kg nitrogen per hectare every year. Therefore, Seabuckthorn plants are also considered suitable soil binders. It has separate male and female plants. Female plants bear fruits in the fourth year of age, and fruiting continues up to 60 years.
A study conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare points out that nearly 70% of the total land under Seabuckthorn cultivation in India is found in the Ladakh region while only 5% of this fruit is harvested (which amounts to around 500 tonnes). However, a positive sign is that over the last twenty years, the economic viability of Seabuckthorn berries has been on the rise, with prices seeing a five-fold increase. Due to the enormous scope for growth of the Seabuckthorn industry, the govt has taken the development of Seabuckthorn under Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH) and is also looking at incorporating best global practices around Seabuckthorn cultivation, harvesting, and processing.
The fruits of seabuckthorn are the richest source of vitamin C, E, flavonoids, and oils that are rich in essential fatty acids. In Ladakh, pregnant ladies and children are given the sea buckthorn fruit called sastalulu as a vitamin supplement. Oil extracted from sea buckthorn seeds, pulp, tender branches, and leaves are used to make different kinds of medicines due to the plant's antibacterial, analgesic, and tissue regenerative properties. The medicinal value of Seabuckthorn was recorded as early as the 8th century in the classic rGyud Biz of the Tibetan medicinal study- Sowa Rigpa. There are a lot of popular Seabuckthorn-based formulations in various pharmacopeias of Sowa Rigpa (Tibetan medicine). The local ethnic doctors are known as "Amchis" who prescribe the fruit seed and bark to aid common colds, malnutrition, skin diseases, and other respiratory ailments.
Modern research has supported the medicinal properties of Seabuckthorn. In this regard, Syed Sheeraz Mehdi, a researcher at the Himalayan Ecological and Conservation Research Foundation (HECRF) Kargil, Ladakh, added that:
The flavonoids and the oils from Sea buckthorn have several potential health applications. There are mainly five areas of research that have been focal points for their use: Most of the work done in the oncology area has been with laboratory animals. A group in India headed by H.C. Goel (Dept. of Radiation Biology, Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Sciences, New Delhi) has published several reports on the potential of 'Hippophae' extract to protect the bone marrow from damage due to radiations and also showed that extract may help in faster recovery of bone marrow cells. The seed oil has been found to enhance nonspecific immunity and to provide anti-tumour effects.
In Ladakh, Seabuckthorn berries are also used in the preparation of juices, jams, squash, and wine. At Tsas Ladakh, a Hyper-local, Avant grade plant-based restaurant in Ladakh, we are on a mission to source all the ingredients locally. This keeps up the traditional usage, provides local employment, and moves us a step closer towards reducing our larger carbon footprint. Our very committed chefs also go village to village in search of the best local ingredients and among these ingredients, Seabuckthorn has become our kitchen favourite. Mr. Aman Singhal, Sous Chef at Tsas Ladakh, along with the Tsas Ladakh team, had visited different villages in Ladakh in pursuit of knowledge surrounding different types of Seabuckthorn. In his findings, he expresses that out of all the Seabuckthorn found in Ladakh, the Seabuckthorn berries of the Nubra region are different; larger, sweeter, and less acidic, and therefore, more palatable. He shared a fantastic scene of the Seabuckthorn auction in the villages.
A scene of the annual meeting by the Gram Panchayat, where every seabuckthorn procurer bids for the entire forest and wild patches throughout the village. The bids go into lakhs (8.5 lakhs in 2021), and the sum of the money for bidding is then distributed among all village households, and a small amount is kept for village upkeep by the panchayat. The winning bidder will then have to further provide wages to labourers (mostly villagers) for harvesting the Seabuckthorn from the wild. The production in Nubra stands anywhere between 25-300 tons. At Tsas, the team is trying to pair Seabuckthorn with lots of exciting ingredients like dark chocolate, lavender, and paprika in an attempt to make new, wholesome, and fascinating dishes. Seabuckthorn will also be used in its puree form, as a gel, or as a flavour in Panna Cottas among other desserts. Due to the acidic nature of Seabuckthorn, the team is also planning to use it as an alternative for tamarind, as tamarind is not grown in Ladakh and Tsas is committed to sourcing locally wherever possible.