VARIABILITY IN ALFALFA OF LADAKH *

by
BIMAL MISRI

Regional Research Centre
Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute
HPKV Campus, Palampur – 176 062 (India)



A unique geographical position has made Ladakh very distinct. The area constitutes the eastern most Trans - Himalayan part of Jammu and Kashmir. Truly described as cold-arid desert, this area receives a total precipitation of 80 mm per year. The summer temperature may rise to 30oC while the winter temperature may go down to –40oC. Intensive sunlight, high evaporation rate, strong winds and fluctuating temperatures characterize the general climate. It is generally said that a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade can have sunstroke and frostbite at the same time. There are extremes of heat and cold. With sparse vegetation, there is little moisture in the atmosphere. Rains are very rare, though it may even snow during July – August, the hottest months. Because of high mountains all around, the area has remained isolated. All these factors have influenced the vegetation cover which is only five percent, comprising herbs, shrubs and xerophytes. Trees of Salix sps. and Populus sps have been introduced in the moist areas. Agriculture is meagre and traditional and is confined to river valley basins where irrigation is available. Most of the farmers do not purchase or exchange seeds, instead a part of the produce is saved and later used as seed (Misri, 1987). This has resulted in the conservation of many old land races of cultivated plants (Gohil and Misri, 1986; Misri, 1989). Animal husbandry is the main occupation of the farmers and alfalfa is extensively cultivated in irrigated farmlands. An area of about 4000 ha is sown under alfalfa.

Alfalfa (Medicago sps.) of Ladakh has a long history. De Candolle (1919) designate Ladakh as one of the centres of origin of Medicago. The local people bear testimony to the fact that it has been the oldest cultivated as well as wild crop of this area. The original alfalfa of Ladakh was yellow flowered, Medicago falcata. It is said that the traders of the old silk route, which passed through Ladakh, noticed the better performance of Medicago sativa in Yarkand (central Asia) and they introduced this species in Ladakh to enhance the availability of forage for their horses. It is very difficult to suggest the time when it was done since no information is available. However, even now Medicago falcata is known as Ole while Medicago sativa as Yarkandi Ole in Ladakh. Ole is used for Medicago in mixed stands. A lot of natural hybridization has taken place and now it is rare to find a true stand of either Medicago sativa or M. falcata. The natural hybridization has resulted in a wide range of variability in habit, leaf size, height, colour of the flower, shape of pods and the resistance of plants to cold and aridity etc. These characteristics of Ladakh alfalfa attracted the attention of American scientists and they introduced this into the U.S.A during 1910 after naming it variety Ladakh (Bolton 1962). Patel and Wanchu (1964) observed the diversity in Ladakh alfalfa and proposed a basic grouping according to the habit of the plants. The present populations of Ladakh Medicago may be assigned to the variegated group of Medicago classification proposed by Whyte et. al (1953).

The present plant exploration foray was made under the aegis of TAPAFON (FAO sponsored Temperate Asia Pasture and Fodder Network.). During this exploration it was not possible to score the populations for their morphological variations since the primary aim was to collect the germplasm. The plants were in seed stage and dry. However, from visual observations the major morphological features have been recorded. Detailed variations existing in pod shapes and seed numbers have been worked out in 28 populations.

ALFALFA CULTIVATION

The domestic livestock comprise yaks, ponies, donkeys, cows, Dzo and Dzomo (Yak x Cow crosses) sheep and goats. Both sedentary and migratory systems of animal rearing are practiced. Arable agriculture is confined only to the low altitude (up to 2500 m) river valleys. Crop residues are the major forage resource available and the sedentary system is confined to these areas. Besides wheat, barley, peas and minor millets, alfalfa is also cultivated here. Four types of lands are recognized under the traditional land classification system and these are Zhing land (cultivated), Zhing Zhang land (well fertilized), Rizhing land (stony) and Thang Zhing land (pasture area). Alfalfa is always cultivated in Rizhing land where crop production is not possible. The local alfalfa is hardy enough to grow well in this poor soil full of pebbles and boulders. Newly reclaimed areas for agriculture are sown under alfalfa for 2-3 years before crop production is initiated there. Most of the alfalfa fields are 10-20 years old and they have not been resown. There is a very interesting practice for self-seeding. A few plants are left in the field at the time of harvest in a staggered fashion. They are permitted to set and scatter the seed in the field.

A new alfalfa field is prepared by 2-3 ploughings and the bigger boulders are stacked around the fields to form a fence. Farmyard manure is added to the soil full of pebbles. Seed, at a rate of 4-8 kg/ha, is sown either in fall (September – October) or spring (April – May). The crop is not harvested for first three years. Only the young leaves may be plucked for use as a vegetable. The field is irrigated as and when required, however, generally irrigation is provided at an interval of 15-20 days.

From the third year onward only a single cut is taken at the pod formation stage. The harvested plants are tied into small bundles, which are stacked on flat rooftops. Besides saving space this provides insulation to the houses during winter. There used to be a peculiar custom of harvest where the Lama (Buddhist priest) would fix an auspicious day for the harvest and it would start only after certain rituals were performed by the Lama. Only a sickle made of Yak horn would harvest the crop; use of iron sickles was considered harmful for the crop. Though this practice still exists in some areas, by and large, people have abandoned it. After the harvest a light grazing by sheep and goats is done in order to provide fertilization to the crop. The alfalfa hay is never fed to the animals during winter as it is believed that the animals catch cold if fed on this hay during winter. It is used during February – June and the hay is mixed with crop residues in the ratio of 1:1.

AREA OF STUDY

The total area of Ladakh is 95,876 km2 , of which twenty eight percent is cultivable (this area is confined to lower valleys where irrigation from adjoining streams and rivers is available). Alfalfa is cultivated in an area of 4,000 ha where assured irrigation is available. Over time seeds have dispersed to moist areas on riverbanks etc; and it is not uncommon to find stands of alfalfa growing in the wild. 

The plant exploration was started from Kargil and an uncommon route passing through Darchik-Batalik (a restricted area) was taken to reach Khaltse situated on the national highway (Fig 1). From Khaltse onwards, collections were made up to Mahi, the last point where alfalfa is cultivated. Beyond Mahi, the cold deserts of Changthang start and cultivation of alfalfa is not possible. The entire route of collection experiences very little precipitation (80 mm per annum), summer temperature may rise to 30o C during July while the winter temperature may go down to -40o C during December- January.

MATERIAL AND METHODS

Collections were made as per the standard techniques established by Hawkes (1980) and Mehra and Arora, 1982). Plant populations from diverse habitats were selected at random and one hundred pods were collected from each population. The places of collection are given in Table 1. The morphological assessment of the pods revealed that, based on the shape, six types of pods existed in Ladakh alfalfa. These types are: 1) circular 2) lance shaped 3) single coiled 4) 2-4 coiled 5) twisted; and 6) crescent shaped. The number of each type of pod per 100 pods collected from a population was counted to determine the percentage of a particular type in a population. Ten pods from each type of a population were scored for number of seeds in each pod. The average of ten scores was taken as the number of seeds present in each pod.

OBSERVATIONS ON VARIABILITY

The variability in the habit of plants is significant. In a single field erect, decumbent or prostrate types of plants can be found. The variability also occurs in the height, leaf size, branch length and their number. A climbing type was also found near Darchik. Detailed investigation, planned for the future, will score this variability. During the present study the pods were collected from 28 populations and the variations scored have been presented in Tables I & II.

Pod shape is one of the diagnostic features for identification of various species of Medicago. The pod of Medicago sativa is double spiral or much curved, small, indehiscent, smooth or spiny; 1-few seeded (Bailey, 1968). In the case of M. falcata the pod is linear, sickle shaped, glabrous with 5-10 seeds (Hooker 1897). However, six shapes of pods were found in twenty-eight populations. 
 


Plate 1

Plate 2

Plate 3

The circular shaped pods found, ranged between 11-60 percent in 14 populations; lance shaped pods were present in the range of 41-100 percent in 10 populations; single coiled (spiral) pods ranged between 10-100 percent in 13 populations; 2-4 coiled (spiral) pods were found only in one population and their presence was 28 percent. Twisted pods (22.5 percent) were found only in two populations. Crescent shaped pods were most common and were found in 18 populations ranging from 11 to 100 percent.

As far as the number of seeds per pod is concerned, this character also displayed significant variations. In circular pods the number of seeds ranged between 4.2 –9.3 (average 6.3); lance shaped pods had 2.4 – 5.8 (average 4.6) seeds per pod. The single coiled pods had 5.2 –8.8 (average 6.2) seeds in each pod; 2-4 coiled pods had the highest number of 9.2 seeds per pod, while the average number of seeds per pod in twisted pods was 6.85. The crescent shaped pods had 3.4 – 7.5 (average 5.45) seeds in each pod.

It is obvious from the variations scored that the alfalfa of Ladakh has undergone a very high level of natural hybridization and a number of characters have evolved which are quite different and in many cases more useful than the characters of Medicago sativa or M. falcata. This huge natural gene pool of Medicago needs to be conserved and exploited for developing high yielding and cold resistant cultivars for different ecological niches of the great cold desert of Ladakh. The Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute Jhansi as well as its Regional Research Centre at Palampur have initiated efforts towards this.  This material collected and reported on in this report is stored in Palampur.

Table 1 Percentage of various types of pods present in alfalfa populations of Ladakh.
Collection No.
Place of collection
Pod type (%)
Plate

Fig.

1 * 2 3 4 5 6
L – 1 Akchamal - - 32 28 - 40 1 1
L – 3 - do - - - 79 - - 21 1 2
L – 6 Bhosuk 19 41 - - - 40 1 3
L – 10 - do - - - - - - 100 1 4
L – 11 Lalung - - - - - 100 1 5
L – 24 Batalik - - - - - 100 1 6
L – 27 Da - 53 47 - - - 1 7
L – 28 - do - - - 45 - - 55 1 8
L – 30 - do - 45 - - - - 55 1 9
L – 43 Sache Da 30 - - - - 70 1 10
L – 46 Saspool 53 - - - - 47 1 11
L - 53 Thikse 36 - 41 - - 23 2 14
L - 54 Upshi - 100 - - - - 2 13
L - 55 - do - 15 75 10 - - - 2 15
L – 57 - do - 30 49 21 - - - 2 16
L – 58 - do - 48 - 22 - - 30 1 12
L – 60 - do - - 78 22 - - - 2 17
L – 63 - do - - - 31 - - 69 2 28
L – 65 - do - 25 - 17 - 25 33 2 19
L – 66 - do - 30 70 - - - - 2 20
L – 67 - do - 60 - 40 - - - 3 21
L – 68 - do - - 100 - - - - 3 22
L – 68 A - do - 30 70 - - - 30 2 18
L – 71 Likche - - - - - 100 3 27
L – 91 Mahi - - 100 - - - 3 25
L – 93 Nimu 19 - - - - 81 3 23
L – 100 - do - - - - - - 100 3 24
L – 105 Nurla  11 89 - - - 11 3 26

* 1. Circular 2. Lance shaped 3. Single coiled 4. 2-4 coiled 5. Twisted 6. Crescent shaped.
 

Table 2. Average number of seeds contained in a single pod of different types.
Collection No.
Pod types
  1 2 3 4 5 6
No. of seed/pod
L – 1 - - 6.7 9.2 - 3.4
L – 3 - - 8.8 - - 7.5
L – 6 9.3 5.8 - - - 7.0
L – 10 - - - - - 6.5
L – 11 - - - - - 3.8
L – 24 - - - - - 3.8
L – 27 - 4.6 6.0 - - -
L – 28 - - 5.7 - - 3.7
L – 30 6.9 - - - - 4.9
L – 43 5.6 - - - - 6.1
L – 46 6.9 - - - - 5.3
L - 53 5.6 - 4.5 - - 4.0
L - 54 - 2.4 - - - -
L - 55 4.9 2.6 5.6 - - -
L – 57 6.8 5.3 7.2 - - -
L – 58 6.2 - 5.2 - 7.5 -
L – 60 - 5.5 7.8 - - -
L – 63 - - 5.9 - - 4.8
L – 65 5.5 - 6.4 - 6.2 6.1
L – 66 4.7 3.1 - - - -
L – 67 4.2 - 5.3 - - -
L – 68 - 5.3 - - - -
L – 68 A 8.2 5.6 - - - -
L – 71 - - - - - 7.1
L – 91 - - 5.5 - - -
L – 93 7.0 - - - - 5.7
L – 100 - - - - - 4.4
L – 105 7.0 5.8 - - - 7.0


PLANT GERMPLASM COLLECTION REPORT
An observation report of an American Plant Physiologist who travelled in high altitude areas in Pakistan and Nepal. Gives some information about the geographical distribution of valuable forages; Medicago falcata and M. sativa with the different strains found in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region.
USDA-ARS FORAGE AND RANGE RESEARCH LABORATORY LOGAN, UTAH Foreign Travel to:
Northern Pakistan and Nepal August 20 - September 21, 1986.


REFERENCES

Bailey, L.H 1968 Manual of cultivated Plants.The Macmillan Co., New York.

Bolton, J.L 1962 Alfalfa. Botany,Cultivation and Utilization.Leonard Hill Books Ltd., London.

DeCandolle,A 1967 (reprint) Origin of Cultivate Plants.Hafner Publishing Co. NewYork.

Gohil, R.N and B.Misri 1986 Comparative Performance of eleven local Buckwheat germplasms under uniform environmental conditions.Buckwheat Research.2: 23-28.

Hawkes,J.G 1980 Crop Genetic Resource Field Collection Manual. IBPGR/EUCARPIA.

Hooker,J.D 1897 Flora of British India vol II. L.Reeves & Co., London.

Mehra,K.L and Arora.R.K 1982 Plant Genetic Resources of India-Their Diversity and Conservation. NBPGR Scientific Monograph No.4, New Delhi.

Misri, B 1987 Disjunct Distribution of Avena fatua as a weed in Ladakh. Oat Newsletter. 37: 110-111.

Misri, B 1989. Evaluation of Wheat and Barley germplasm from Ladakh as winter fodder in Kashmir. Rachis 8(2): 20-21

Patel,B.D and P.N.Wanchu 1964 Ladakh’s Alfalfa-A Potential Fodder.Indian Farming(Feb. issue): 20-23.

Whyte,R.O, Nilsson Leissner and H.C.Trumble 1953 Legumes in Agriculture. FAO, Rome.