Maize in India

The year 1978/79 was a sabbatical for me and I went to India on an Indo-American Research Fellowship to study genetic relationships and genetic distance in the older Indian landraces of maize. Specifically I was interested in the landraces grown in the Eastern Himalayas around Darjeeling and further east in Assam. Because of government policies I was denied access to most of the tribal maize growing areas of India on national security grounds but was able to obtain representative material by having Dr. J. K. S. Sachan of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute make collections for me. Much of the maize production is centered in the Indo-Gangetic plains of India and I was stationed at the Punjab Agricultural University where there is an active maize breeding program under the direction of Dr. A. S. Khehra.

The maize of India is extremely interesting from an evolutionary viewpoint because of its distance from the center of diversity for this crop and because once introduced to India small genetically isolated populations have been cultivated locally, sometimes for over a century. The oldest of the Indian landraces were probably introduced by the Portuguese (16c) and these flints have undergone considerable local adaptation. Within the last century there has been the arrival of United States germplasm via South Africa (Hickory King types) and direct introduction by American missionaries especially among tribal peoples in hill districts. India is too big and diverse a country to make generalizations but I was repeatedly impressed by how rigid is the selection of cultivators for crop uniformity. The differences between abutting cultivators could be as varied as differences between regions. Each one of these adjacent fields possessed its separate and distinct evolutionary history. The pattern of selection was the polar extreme of what I'd encountered in the Americas with indigenous cultivators and is worthy of further investigation. The racial diversity of maize in India is small when compared to the Americas but the selection for genetic uniformity and local adaptation indicate a potential for unique germplasm for the plant breeder, especially in the area of disease resistance.

I centered part of my research on the study of the landrace Sikkim Primitive (N. Dhawan, MNL 38:69-70, 1964), which was recognized as showing marked resemblance in its ear (but not plant type) to the reconstructed ancestor of Mangelsdorf. This little grown popcorn of Sikkim and adjoining areas occurs at mid-elevation, 6000-8000 feet, in moist tropical cloud forest region, and has been claimed to be a primitive sort of ancestral maize. Actually, it is a local adaptation to short day (tropical short day, flowering in September) of probably the commercial popcorn Ladyfinger. The resemblance to the reconstructed ancestor is not inappropriate since Ladyfinger was used in one of Mangelsdorf's reconstructions. The people of the region grow maize as a food crop (an eight or ten rowed semident/flint of the recognized race Tista Mendi [Bhag Singh, Races of Maize in India, 106 pages, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 1977]), which is most probably a derivative of a Caribbean Flint/New England Flint from the plains below, but the popcorn Sikkim Primitive, or Murli, is totally distinct and used only as offerings in ceremonial use among the Buddhistic peoples of the region. These small popcorns make a much more to scale offering than the semident maize. This popcorn is not widely grown and the cultivators who do grow it do so for personal use in their own prayer rooms, which can be half the total floor space of the house (the cook house, because of the possibility of fire in these wooden structures, is separate and actually much of the living is done not in the house but in the cook house). Offerings of bowls of water and small ears of Murli with yellow (sacred color) endosperm are placed before a permanent altar in the prayer room. The people of this region cultivate steep hillsides with a winter crop of peas and potatoes, intercropped; and a summer crop of maize sometimes intercropped with finger millets. The maize is consumed either as a fermented beer-like beverage (Wilkes, Econ. Bot. 22:347-359, 1968) or parched and sometimes some actually popped. They grow excellent cool temperate vegetables and obtain a large fraction of their dietary protein from plant material. Livestock (cows, goats and pigs) are all pen fed and cornstalks are an important part of the ruminant feed. The house sites are in the middle of the cultivated fields and there is no village formation with distant fields. Maize is hung as ears from the headbutts of the rafters of the house and the stalks are kept dry under cover in an extension of the cow shed. The number of plants of Murli grown is small, certainly less than a hundred while the semident Tista Mendi population is large and may cover about two/three hectares (the average landholding).

A second area which I looked at closely in an indirect manner, and which is worthy of further studies, is the Eastern Region of the tribal areas in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, and Tripura. Much of the maize, which is not typically Indian in the region is extremely interesting because it has been introduced by missionaries in the early part of this century. From an evolutionary viewpoint these are modified Reid Yellow Dents and Lancaster Sure Cropper which might be a wealth of disease resistant germplasm for present day temperate inbreds entering the tropics. Unfortunately I was denied access to the region and all the collections were made by Dr. Sachan.

A third area where older landraces are grown is in the foothills of South India, around 3000 to 5000 feet in elevation, seasonally dry with a tropical forest vegetation cover. These are modified New England Flints which are very rapid in their maturity and among tribal people in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa are called "hungry children food" because the crop is ready and eaten green (like a sweet corn) before the slower to mature rice crop is ready for harvest. The maize was planted in small garden plots along with squash (C. pepo) and beans, but the beans in this case were cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) and Phaseolus lunatus, the "carob" group which is often toxic. Maize is no longer a principal crop in the region and is being displaced by the introduction of more rapidly growing, fertilizer responsive, earlier to mature rice varieties. This maize landrace most probably possesses germplasm for disease resistance because all the crops grown in the region showed signs of fungal infections.

I was surprised to find Tripsacum (T. laxum, the non-flowering "Guatemala Grass" that was widely used to stabilize soils on tea estates in Ceylon [Sri Lanka] between 1900 and 1920) growing as an escape in the tropical rain forest zone of Kerala, South India. It is still being used to stabilize soils in tea plantations and at Periyar, Kerala I observed elephants foraging on Tripsacum; this was a first.

The use of teosinte as a forage crop was much more widespread twenty years ago and instances of its present use were few and far between. In general the use of "Florida teosinte" on state run dairy farms has been replaced by sudan grass.

Most of the maize grown in India will be short day and difficult to grow in experimentation under U.S. conditions (assuming it has passed plant quarantine) without short day induction of flowering, but many of these local collections from tribal areas deserve screening for disease resistance and inclusion in the World Maize Germplasm Collections.

H. Garrison Wilkes

Please Note: Notes submitted to the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter may be cited only with consent of the authors.

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