'Let's play a guessing game, Grandma,'' my grandson Mekky, who is two years and nine months old, said to me one day. ''Guess what fruit starts with the letter A?'' He was all smiles when I answered ''apple''. Then we went on down the alphabet: B for banana, C for cherry, and D for durian. Those were easy, and I answered him promptly.
FITS RIGHT IN: Above and left, the emblic is a small to medium-sized tree that will suit a small garden.
But when he asked me what fruit started with the letter E, I got stuck. I could not think of a fruit that starts with E, but he would not let go. He asked the question repeatedly, so I told him I'd consult Google. He promptly sat on my lap and together we looked for the elusive fruit. It is called emblic.
Emblic, known in Thai as makham pom, is not so well known among Bangkokians as it is not grown on a large scale like other fruits. But ask anyone who grew up in a rural area, and chances are they know it. There are even villages in Rayong, Mae Hong Son, Tak and Ubon Ratchathani provinces called Ban Thung Makham Pom, named after the tree which used to grow in abundance in those provinces' mixed deciduous forests. Also, there is a Ban Makham Pom in Saraburi, a Ban Khok Makham Pom in Lop Buri, a Ban Pang Makham Pom in Chiang Mai, and a Huai Makham Pom in Kanchanaburi, all of which point to the wide distribution of this indigenous tree.
Phyllanthus emblica, also known as Emblica officinalis and commonly known as Indian gooseberry, is native to India but also found in Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. In his book, Religious & Useful Plants of Nepal & India, professor Trilok Chandra Majupuria of Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, writes that Phyllanthus emblica is one of five sacred trees worshipped by Hindus, who believe it to be ''the harbinger of virtues and boundless merits''. Worshippers pour water onto the root of the tree as an offering to deceased ancestors, and beseech the tree for children and the forgiveness of sins.
In Ayurvedic medicine the juice of the fruit is used as a laxative, eye wash, appetite stimulant, restorative tonic, and to treat anorexia, indigestion, diarrhoea, anaemia and jaundice. Findings by Indian, Pakistani and Japanese researchers show that whether eaten fresh or dried, emblic reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease, and is effective in the treatment of diabetes, liver and respiratory ailments, eye disorders, atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's disease. Said to be the richest in vitamin C of all fruits, with a content 30 times higher than that in oranges, it improves the immune system and prevents premature ageing.
In India the tree is widely grown for its fruit, which is used in the production of cough drops and cough syrup. The waste product is used as animal feed, and oil from the seed is used in the production of hair tonic, which is said to be effective in keeping the hair black and thick. There are no reports of these uses in Thailand, where the fruit is mostly gathered from the wild and pickled or eaten fresh with salt mixed with sugar and chilli pepper. Eaten without salt, the fruit tastes bitter at first bite, followed by a sweet aftertaste that keeps one from being thirsty.
Buddhist monks are not supposed to eat anything, including fruit, after midday but they are allowed to eat emblic any time of day or night because it is considered medicinal. However, not many people I know have a tree in their garden, either because few Thais are aware of the many health benefits of this wonderful fruit or there are no saplings for sale. The latter may change soon with the introduction from India of a variety with fruit the size of one's big toe instead of the usual thumb-sized fruit.
The new variety is not cheap: At the agricultural fair at Kasetsart University last May, a one-metre-tall fruit-bearing plant was selling for 1,500 baht, while a small plant was 500 baht. Wait another year or two and the plants will be 500 and 100 baht, respectively, if not even cheaper. I am sure there will be saplings for sale again at the next agricultural fair, which is held annually in the first week of February but was pushed to May this year because of the floods that submerged the university under one metre of water for the month of November last year.
The emblic tree is not particular about soil as long as it is not clayey, but it thrives best in loamy soil with good drainage. A small to medium-sized tree, it will fit a small garden, but make sure it gets plenty of sun. It is drought resistant, but while the tree is still small water when the soil is dry to the touch. For a more robust tree, mix compost and animal manure with the soil and apply NPK 15-15-15 fertiliser every month or two.
To mark the beginning of the new year, plant an emblic tree _ or any tree of your choice _ in your garden. Happy New Year to one and all!
TAKE YOUR PICK: Left, an emblic tree at the agricultural fair at Kasetsart University in May. Above, these saplings were selling for 500 baht at the fair, but wait another year or two and they will cost less.
About the author
Writer: Normita Thongtham