Conservation and genetic enhancement of underutilized vegetable crop species in North Eastern Region of India

The North Eastern region of India comprising of eight states namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, is one of the richest reservoirs of different underutilized vegetable crop species. Apart from the nutritional value, many regional underutilized vegetable crops are used for medicinal purposes, for income generation and poverty alleviation.

Species diversity in the region

A large number of indigenous underutilized vegetables crop species are used particularly by the tribal population.  The local tribals of Arunachal Praadesh grow a vegetable having red tomato like fruits slightly bitter in taste belonging to the genus Solanum. In Manipur another kind of brinjal having round fruit and intermediate in appearance between tomato and brinjal is grown.

Table 1. Diversity of Solanum species in North East India.

Cultivates species Remarks
Solanum macrocarpon L. Introduced in NE region
Solanum xanthcarpum Schard & Wendl Used as vegetable and for medicinal purposes
Solanum indicum L. Domesticated, used as vegetable and medicine
Solanum mammosum L. Possibly introduced, ornamental with high solasodine percentage
Solanum khasianum Clarke Wild – cultivated for solasodine alkaloid
Solanum torvum Swartz. Wild – sold in the market in Mizoram
Solanum berbisetum Nees Edible ripe fruits
Solanum ferox L. Wild – leaves are used for medicinal purpose
Solanum spirale Roxb. Wild but domesticated for medicinal use in Arunachal Pradesh
Solanum sisymbrifolium Lam. Native of Africa, wildly grown in Meghalaya
Solanum kurzii Br. Endemic in Garo hills, Meghalaya
Solanum gilo Raddi. Introduced in NE region as a vegetable


In the hilly areas, tree tomato (Cyphomandra betacca), a perennial shrub producing red tomato like vegetables is also grown and used as such. Tree tomato is consumed as delicious chutney when raw or after roasting and peeling off the skin.

Table 2. Diversities of underutilized cucurbits in North East India

Cultivated species Area of concentration for diversities Range of diversities
Cucurbita ficifolia Meghalaya Introduced, neutralized
Coccinia grandis Assam, West Bengal Limited
Cucumis callosus Foothill areas of Assam Confined to limited pockets
Luffa acutangula. Tropical areas of Assam Wide
Luffa cylindrica Tropical and subtropical areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, West Bengal Moderate
Momordica cochinchinensis Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, West Bengal Limited
Momordica dioca Garo Hills Rare
Trichosanthus anguina Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam, West Bengal Limited
Trichosanthus dioca. Tropical areas of Assam, Tripura Limited
Cylanthera pedata Hills of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh Moderate
Benincasa hispida Asssam, Nagaland, Meghalaya Wide
Lagenaria siceraria Throughout the country Wide
Sechium edule High hills of Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Darjeeling of West Bengal Moderate

One of the legume species Vigna vexillata, is grown by the tribals of Tripura. It is a legume cum tuber crop and rich in carbohydrates and minerals. Tree bean (Parkia roxburghii G. Don.) is one of the most common of multipurpose tree species in the Manipur and Mizoram (Kumar et al., 2002). Another vegetable tree growing in the lower altitude zones and popular among the people is drum stick or horse radish locally called Sajina (Moringa oleifera).

Many species of cucurbits are found and diversities of underutilized cucurbits in the region is given in Table 1. The wild species Cucumis hardwickii, the likely progenitor of cultivated cucumber, is found growing in natural habitats in the foothills of Himalayas and NE region, particularly Meghalaya. Cho-Cho (Sechium edule) a native of tropical America is a very popular vegetable in the region. Commonly called as squash, it grows abundantly without much care and attention. Cho-Cho produces large starchy edible roots in addition to fruits.

Conservation efforts

To facilitate effective utilization of these plant genetic resources, it is important that these are evaluated for productivity, crop duration, resistance to biotic and abiotic stress and quality of produce. Several State and Central government research organizations including universities of the region like Botanical Survey of India, Shillong, GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, North-East Unit, Itanagar, Indian Council of Agricultural Research for North-Eastern Hill Region, Barapani, Shillong etc., are engaged in research, inventory and conservation of underutilized crops in the region. The germplasm material available at different centers has been evaluated and utilized for crop improvement. The ICAR Research Complex for NEH Region, Umiam (Meghalaya) is maintaining and evaluating more than 100 germplasm of Indian bean and 12 germplasm of chow-chow.

Many state agencies are also working towards crop-specific conservation activities, like the establishment of germplasm banks for horticultural crops. Non-governmental organizations are involved in the conservation and enhancement of underutilized vegetable crops at the local and grassroots level while the International donor agencies have been playing crucial role in conserving the genetic resources through their respective projects.

 Constraints in conservation

·Land tenure systems vary widely among different Northeastern states, which are quite different from the rest of India. The complexity in land ownership and tenurial rights makes it difficult for survey, demarcation and consolidation of land. Therefore, cadastral survey and land demarcation are completely absent in the hill areas of northeast.

  • Unequal distribution of land resources is responsible for increasing dependence on forests by certain sections of the society leading to diversity degradation. Resolving the gender and equity issues concerning natural resource management is equally important in North-East as in the other parts of the country.
  • Needs a close inter-departmental coordination to the sustainable management of underutilized crop species in the region.
  • Unregulated shifting cultivation by the local tribal populations has been a major threat to sustainable genetic enhancement and conservation, particularly in the community forests of the region.
  • The long insurgency problem in some states such as Assam and Tripura has considerable impact on conservation of these species.

Problems in conservation and improvement

  1. Gaps in knowledge and information

Information on genetic diversity is extremely poor. Species inventory in inaccessible areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar hills of Assam, and parts of Mizoram and Manipur is yet to be made. 

2.Lack of vision

Most of the programmes and activities being undertaken by the state governments are shortsighted. Long-term planning based on sustainable development strategies and integration of underutilized vegetable crops conservation and improvement issues with development planning is the need of the hour. In order to increase the revenue generation, the State Horticulture Departments pursue the policy of raising plantations of commercially important species by clearing and burning the natural underutilized plant species areas. The horticulture departments are introducing various high yielding varieties/hybrids of commercial crops. This is associated with increasing use of inorganic fertilizers and chemicals for plant protection. Such policies, apart from ignoring the indigenous underutilized species also effect adversely on existing flora and fauna. 

  1. Gaps in policies

 The policies focusing on economically important species have been harmful to underutilized crop species. Such policies have not only decreased the crop species in natural/ rehabilitated forests but have also resulted in accelerated soil erosion and loss of soil moisture. The policy of promoting high yielding varieties of commercial crops and assessment of progress and success on the basis of consumption of fertilizer and plant protection chemicals has led to ignoring the indigenous underutilized crops. The government subsidy and credit policy is instrumental in adopting these schemes. The planners have not considered the role and value of underutilized crop species in preparing developmental plans. 

  1. Lack of trained manpower

The number of trained taxonomists in the region is grossly inadequate. This is one of the most important bottlenecks for completing the inventorization of diversity. Not all persons concerned with management and enhancement of genetic resources understand the concept of diversity in proper perspective. So it is imperative that those who plan, decide and implement the developmental programmes are adequately trained and educated in favour of diversity conservation.

 5 Need based participatory research

Regeneration and cultural practices for many species need to be researched and standardized for their cultivation. Threatened species need immediate action for ensuring their continued existence. Identification and classification of threatened species need to be done. There is a serious gap between research and field needs. The established formal institutions like university departments, Research Stations and others rarely involve farmers and local communities while pursuing research. Hence need-based research needs to be encouraged.


Problems relating to conservation and enhancement of underutilized crops in north eastern region are land tenure issues, gender and equity issues, inter-departmental coordination, shifting cultivation, inter-state border dispute, insurgency etc. With the establishment of institutions like NBPGR, ICAR, BSI etc., adequate attention was given for systematic management and enhancement of underutilized crop species available in this region. These institutions and universities in north east have made tremendous efforts in collection, evaluation, conservation and utilization of underutilized germplasm for development of vegetable varieties in this region. Keeping in view, the regional demand for vegetable crops, underutilized species needs to be identified for collection, particularly, for high yield, quality, resistance to diseases and pests, tolerance to frost and acidity.

 Dr. N. Rai (Sr.Scientist), Division of Horticulture, ICAR Research Complex for NEH Region, Umiam –793103 (Meghalaya), India


Arora R K, & Pandey Anjula, 1996. Wild edible plants of India-diversity, conservation and use. ICAR, NBPGR, New Delhi.pp 294.

CSIR, 1950. The wealth of India, CSIR, New Delhi. Vol. II, pp56.

Kumar Sunil K, Suresh V R, Nagachen S V & Singh Th Raghumani, 2002. Tree bean: a potential multipurpose tree. Indian Horticulture, Oct-Dec, pp10-11.

Pandey G, 2002. Popularizing under exploited fruits for consumptions, Indian Horticulture, Oct-Dec, pp 18-21.

Thakur N S Azad, Sharma Y P & Barwal R N, 1988. Tree tomato cultivation in Meghalaya, Indian Farming. Feb., pp3.

N.Rai, B. S. Asati and D. S. Yadav

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