The state of Kerala, on the southwestern tip of India, shares many similarities with South America – tropical climate, luxuriant vegetation, rubber plantations, sun-kissed beaches, a love for football and communism. Of late, another item has made it to the list – Passion Fruit (Passiflora edulis). It grows on a vine native to southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and northern Argentina. Spherical in shape, the fruit develops a yellow or purple colored rind as it matures. Inside lie as many as 250 seeds, each surrounded by a membranous sac. Passion fruits yield a sweet and slightly acidic juice. The indigenous Guarani called it ‘maracuya’, which translates as ‘nursery for flies’. There are two principal varieties – Yellow and Purple. It is now cultivated in many countries of the Old World, in regions enjoying tropical and subtropical climate.

In Asia, it grows wild or on farms in Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and South India. Its nutritional and medicinal properties have made it popular among cancer, diabetes, asthma and dengue patients. The surging demand, along with the low cost incurred on cultivation of Passion Fruit vines, has made the crop extremely popular among Kerala’s farmers. However, Kerala is not the only state in India to cultivate the South American fruit. It is grown in neighboring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, as well as the Northeast of India – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya. A new variety – Kaveri (sharing its name with a major South Indian river) has been developed by agricultural scientists in India. Given below is an extract from an article published by Civil Society –  ‘Kerala is crazy about passion fruit’, explaining the reasons for the state’s Passion Fruit boom:

Kerala is on a honeymoon with passion fruit. Originally from Brazil, passion fruit has found fertile ground in the state after a government farm first began growing and processing it in a low-key way. Over the past five years, farmers, entrepreneurs and ordinary people have fallen in love with this aromatic fruit. Large sums are being privately invested in passion fruit, that too with no government incentives and subsidies or even any publicity by the agriculture department. Barring vanilla, perhaps no other crop has roused so much interest in so short a time. Farmers find passion fruit easy to grow. Ideas like farming in collectives and clusters have taken root. An entrepreneur has started a business in helping people raise passion fruit orchards. Driving this upsurge in passion fruit is the agro-processing industry. There is money to be made from processing. A multitude of units has come up to produce squash, juice, jam and pulp from passion fruit.

Kerala’s largest processor is Malnad Passion Fruit Products, which was started five years ago by three partners. Their first farm was in Puttady in Idukki district. Then they expanded to Theni in Tamil Nadu and now own 160 acres over both states. Malnad Passion Fruit’s average production is seven tonnes per acre. A small percentage of fresh fruit is packed and sold to Lulu’s supermarket in Kochi. But mostly the fruit is processed and bottled at the company’s unit in Kothamangalam. Squash is exported to the UAE and Qatar. Pulp in small cans is likely to be launched soon. Interestingly, it was public sector agricultural agencies that first experimented with passion fruit for cultivation and agro-processing in Kerala. Malnad Passion Fruit got its staff trained at the state-owned Orange and Vegetable Farm at Nelliampathy in Palakkad district. Spread over 50 acres, it was the only commercial farm that cultivated passion fruit and made it into squash, jam, jelly, juice and pickle from the fruit’s rind. The Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK), another public sector organisation, based in Kottayam, owns 25 acres. It began growing passion fruit in three different areas, three years ago. It, too, manufactures squash.

What explains the rising popularity of passion fruit among consumers? It is, no doubt, aromatic. But the real reason is the fruit’s many nutritional and medicinal qualities, especially the belief that it helps dengue patients by increasing platelet count quickly. Doctors recommend it and during the dengue season, the sale of passion fruit begins to spiral. Shops and fruit vendors around big hospitals start selling passion fruit. Fruit vendors, realising this, begin to stock it. The leaf decoction of passion fruit is believed to bring down blood sugar. The fruit has antioxidants and richer reserves of polyphenols than other tropical fruits such as bananas, lychees and pineapples. Extract of purple passion fruit peel is believed to help reduce wheezing and coughing associated with asthma, according to one scientific study. Farmers find people turning up at their doorstep to buy passion fruit for family members who are ill.

Perhaps the biggest advantage for farmers is the creation of a local market by entrepreneurs for both fruit and juice. A decade ago, it was likely only the Nelliampathy farm and Mountain Fruits of Idukki that were making passion fruit juice. Today, there are more than a dozen small and medium units that are happily marketing the juice and fruit. Caterers, too, have played a big role in introducing passion fruit to consumers. Joseph recalls that when they first set up their unit, they faced the dilemma of creating a market for their squash. Now passion fruit juice is a favourite at weddings, social functions and sports meets, thanks to caterers. Event managers always include it in their drinks list. No wonder the fruit’s popularity graph has risen exponentially.

The passion fruit craze is now spreading from Kerala to neighbouring Tamil Nadu and, to a lesser extent, Karnataka. Tamil Nadu’s climate, with less rainfall and more sunshine, is believed to increase passion fruit productivity. Passion fruit is a farmer-friendly crop. It has a ready domestic market and an export market. Farmers with little investment can set up a tiny processing unit. The vines yield fruit the first year itself. They don’t need replanting for about four years and replanting is not expensive. Though the commercial growers can’t wait for that to happen naturally, the fruits fall on their own. So farmers don’t need to hire labour for harvesting. The pulp is protected by a thick rind and its quality remains intact for 10 days. Therefore unsold stock can be processed. Transport is also available. Most maiden growers of passion fruit are keen to scale up production in the coming years.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a worker with Passion Fruit vines in a farm near Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. The photograph was uploaded by Tony Winston/Agência Brasília. Passion Fruit is a native of South America and its flower happens to be the national flower of Paraguay.