Amid the dizzying array of fruits and vegetables found across India is a custard apple that can be easily scooped out like ice cream because it has a fraction of the seed the fruit is normally found with. Then there is a tomato variety resistant to three viruses that can stay fresh at room temperature for about 15 days, a mango variety with a wafer-thin seed, making more room for the pulp, as well as several mango hybrids that stay fresh longer at room temperature, and are firmer and sweeter.

These hybrids have been developed by agricultural scientists – several of them women – at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research in Bengaluru over the past five decades. Besides fruits and vegetables, these scientists have also worked on growing staple food crops such as rice and wheat in drought conditions.

Established in 1967 in New Delhi, the institute moved to Bengaluru in 1968. It completes 50 years this year. Here’s a look at the women working in this institute who have contributed to research that has led to an increase in crop yields, helping our farmers increase their income.

Kamala Jayanthi: Friend of creepy-crawlies

A principal scientist in the division of entomology and nematology, Jayanthi’s work in integrated pest management and chemical ecology has contributed to developing a non-violent method to rid crops of a common pest.

“Oriental fruit flies are a major problem with mangoes,” said Jayanthi. “We are number one in mango production in the world but hardly export 10% of the fruit to other countries as they all have quarantine instructions.”

Jayanthi and her group of scientists found that fruit flies are attracted to a chemical compound present in mangoes called gamma-octalactone. Attracted by the smell, the flies lay their eggs on the fruits. These eggs later develop into maggots, which feed on the fruit pulp, damaging them. Jayanthi and her team used the compound to make a solution called Arka Dorsolure F, which they smeared on paper traps that lured the female fruit flies to lay eggs on them instead, thus leaving the mangoes alone. Arka Dorsolure will soon be sold commercially.

Jayanthi has also worked on a project that got silkworm moths to lay more eggs. After silk farmers reported that silkworm moths tended to retain eggs in the egg sac, Jayanthi and her team developed a solution called Arka Egstra, which is based on smells used by nature to attract silk worms. This formulation gets the silkworm moth to lay more eggs as compared to the number of eggs they do during regular silkworm rearing.

Madhavi Reddy: The pepper lady

Chilli peppers originated in South America but were brought to Europe by the explorer Christopher Columbus in the 15th century, and eventually reached India via Portuguese sailors in the 16th century. Today, it is difficult to imagine food in India without the use of chillies.

Madhavi Reddy, principal scientist in the division of vegetable crops, specialises in breeding hotter and better peppers. She and her team have developed several chilli varieties that are resistant to biotic stresses such as fungi, bacteria and viruses. They have also developed four high-yielding hybrids – Arka Meghana, Arka Harita, Arka Sweta and Arka Khyati – and two or three lines of the Karnataka Byadagi variety whose colour and pungency have led to its use by the pharmaceutical industry to make medicines, balms and even pepper sprays.

Most of the chilli in India is grown in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. India exports several tonnes of chilli every year.

“Among all spices, India earns maximum money – Rs 3,500 crore per annum – through the export of chillies,” said Reddy.

Reddy and her team of scientists are now looking at reducing the consumption of water by chilli plants. They are also working with molecular biologists to select genetic markers responsible for pungency, colour, male sterility and virus resistance in an attempt to develop new chilli varieties that are strong in these qualities.

Rekha A: Bananas about bananas

A principal scientist in the division of fruit crops, Rekha A has a doctorate in identifying banana traits by their corresponding genetic markers. She is developing a banana that will be resistant to a common fungus.

“Fusarium wilt caused by a fungus damages the sweet and delicate Elakki Bale [banana variety] of Karnataka,” said Rekha A. “It also harms the Rasthali variety. We have developed intermediate hybrids that will be useful for the development of resistant cultivated types.”

She added that since banana is a sterile, seedless fruit, it is a challenge to improve its varieties using conventional methods.

Banana plants use a lot of water, and Rekha A is involved in analysing the effect of water stress on banana growth to identify varieties that can grow well and bear fruits while using less water.

The scientist and her team have also developed a variety of chikoo or sapota. Named IIHRS-63, this is a dwarf variety with round fruits that can be planted close to other trees. It is useful for high-density plantations, and is also easy to harvest because of its low height.

Rekha A has also developed a lemon variety, Rasraj, which is tolerant to citrus bacterial canker disease.

Meera Pandey: Mushroom evangelist

Pandey, principal scientist in the institute’s mushroom research laboratory, says she has helped spread awareness about the varieties of mushrooms available in India.

“When I joined the institute 30 years ago, only button mushrooms were known,” she said. “I brought about awareness of the diversity of mushrooms. There are more than 2,000 edible varieties. Then there are others, which can be used for ornamental purposes.”

Pandey and her team have developed an agri-waste management system that can be adopted nationally to grow mushrooms. “A colossal amount of agriculture waste [98 million tonnes from cereal crops alone] that is burnt in India can be used to grow mushrooms,” she said. “This will reduce pollution and can contribute to rural [development], women empowerment and better nutrition as mushrooms are high in protein content.”

Meera Pandey (extreme right).

Pandey suggests that mushroom cultivation can be made part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme to provide work to women, who otherwise have to do strenuous labour such as digging canals and constructing roads.

She has conducted rural training programmes with various state departments to advocate the growing and eating of mushrooms as they are nutritionally rich. They contain minerals like iron, selenium and potassium, and have low glycemic index, which is beneficial to those with diabetes.

She and her team have also developed value-added products out of mushroom powder such as rasam, and chutney powder that can be added to any dish to make it more nutritious.

Tejaswini: Flower power

A principal scientist in the division of ornamental and medicinal crops, Tejaswini is known to have developed new varieties of high-yielding marigold flowers as well as new indigenous rose varieties for the highly competitive international export market.

Arka Bangara and Arka Agni are the varieties of marigold that Tejaswini has helped develop. “Marigolds are the friends of the poor farmer,” said the scientist. “It sells cheap at Rs 30 to Rs 50 per kg. Earlier, farmers had to go back to companies for hybrid seeds. Not anymore. They can be multiplied by farmers.”

She narrated how Shanthilal, farmer in Yadgir district of Karnataka, cultivated Arka Bangara 2 on one acre of land last year. His crop brought him Rs 3.5 lakh in four months.

Referring to roses, Tejaswini said that the flower is difficult to grow and breed. She added that it was tough for India to enter the export market for roses as indigenous roses were unable to stay fresh during long flights, and exporting other breeds invited the payment of royalties to European breeders.

In 2010, she and her team developed Arka Swadesh, a rose variety that is red in colour and has glossy leaves. Last year they released two more varieties of roses – Arka Ivory and Arka Pride – for the cut flower market. There are a few hurdles to overcome and agreements to be made before these roses can be sold as cut flowers in the international market.

Arka Sukanya and Arka Parimala are two rose varieties developed by Tejaswini and her team. These are rich in anti-oxidants and can be used to make rose petal tea and sherbets. They can also be used as food colour and flavourings. Sukanya is suitable for fragrance and use in the cosmetics and perfume industry.

Arka Pride. Credit: IIHR