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Kerala Man Earns Lakhs from Seeds of ‘Fruit of Heaven’, Shares Cultivation Tips

For the past four years, Jojo Punnackal of Ernakulam, Kerala, has been growing the gac fruit, an unusual and healthy fruit from Vietnam. He earns around Rs 2 lakh only by selling the seeds.

Shruti Kandwal
He grows more than 30 gac fruit plants on his house terrace, front yard, and 60 cents of the ground around his house.
He grows more than 30 gac fruit plants on his house terrace, front yard, and 60 cents of the ground around his house.

In 2018, Jojo Punnackal was hosting an event for a social welfare organization in Vaikom, Kerala, when he saw a melon-sized fruit with a vivid reddish-orange color. Despite his doubts about the fruit, his curiosity compelled him to take a handful of its seeds from the person who presented it at the occasion.

Those few seeds changed his life and made him more interested in agriculture.

His residence in Amalapuram, near Angamaly in Kerala, is now famous for cultivating gac fruit, an exotic and healthy foreign fruit. This fruit, scientifically known as Momordica cochinchinensis, is native to Vietnam and thrives in the warmer climatic zones of Southeast Asia.

"Though my family was involved in agriculture for centuries I wasn't too interested in it until I found gac fruit and the scope of cultivating it. We have a few cash crops on our farm, such as rubber and areca nuts, but gac has become my most valued possession," Jojo explained.

He now grows more than 30 gac fruit plants on his house terrace, front yard, and 60 cents of the ground around his house. He also sells exotic plant seeds and makes around Rs 2 lakh annually.

Growing The Superfood

When Jojo sowed the first seeds of the gac fruit in 2018, he had no idea of its taste or nutritional value. "It was soon after the 2018 floods in August that the seeds kept in my residence were under water for one or two days as our neighborhood was also impacted. After the disaster, I discovered the seeds and chose to plant them right away because they had been soaking in water for a few days. I was quite interested since I had no idea how the plant would come out," the 48-year-old explained.

Within a few months, he realized it grew just like passion fruit, by climbing vines, said Jojo, who quickly began researching the plant. "Within three to four months the plant started flowering and that's when I started learning and reading about gac fruit online. I was surprised to see that it was commonly grown in nations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, South China, and North East Australia," adds Jojo, who also operates a branding company.

"However, I was even more surprised to hear about its nutritious content and the enormous market for these fruits and value-added goods in those nations," he said.

Jojo claimed that three of the six plants he planted were female and three were male, which he was unaware of until they yielded fruit. "In 2018 December, we got our first fruits and it was pretty exciting to see such brilliant-colored fruits hanging from the vines like bulbs. In its early phases, the fruit is green; subsequently, it turns yellow, then orange, and finally reddish-orange," he added.

When the gac fruit is split open, it reveals an orange-colored edible fleshy interior with black seeds and a dark crimson pulpy coating. "A single fruit can weigh up to 1 kilogram, and a single plant can bear up to 50 fruits in one season," Jojo explained, adding that he now receives the output twice a year. "These plants often begin bearing fruit between December and March. It has to be pruned soon after the yielding season for a higher yield the next time," he added.

“The Fruits of Heaven”: Chinese bitter cucumber or spiny gourd

These fruits, also known as Chinese bitter cucumber or spiny gourd, are renowned as the "fruits of heaven" due to their nutritional qualities. "Not just the fruit, even the seeds, and leaves of this plant have various medicinal properties. It has been used to cure skin and eye conditions, and the fruit is commonly consumed for boosting immunity, heart health, and healthy skin, among other things. Indeed, it is its numerous health advantages and attributes that have given them the name "fruit of heaven," according to Jojo.

"Several firms in countries such as Vietnam have started marketing gacs as supplements. They've also been used in face creams and other anti-aging products," said Jojo, adding that following the first harvest, he began studying how to cultivate gac fruits on a wide scale from Vietnamese and YouTube channels.

Gac Fruit & Its Value-Added Products

Jojo claimed that after learning about the fruit's potential, he had the confidence to extend its production. "I didn't sell the fruits, instead I started saving the seeds and finally increased the cultivation. Last year, in 2021, I planted gac fruit on about 60 cents of land surrounding my house, replacing all of the rubber plants I had put there. Right now, I have about 30 plants, and each plant yields roughly 40-50 fruits every season," he explained.

"The market price for 1 kg of gac fruit is from Rs 900 to Rs 1,200 but I haven't begun selling the fruits commercially. I was more concerned about conserving seeds in order to expand agriculture and sell them," said Jojo, who sells gac fruit seeds for Rs 300 each packet of seeds. "The seed packet contains six seeds since determining male and female seeds is difficult. We won't know the gender until it blooms."

"I earn around Rs 15,000 per month and an average of Rs 2 lakh per year from the seeds," he said.

According to Jojo, these fruits thrive in areas with plenty of sunlight and a little dry climate that allows for irrigation. Another thing to bear in mind while cultivating gac fruit trees is that both male and female plants are required for pollination. "Though pollination might happen naturally, it is advisable to pollinate the flowers manually as it can ensure roughly 90 percent good outcomes. Natural pollination would yield just 40% success. One male plant for every five female plants is the ideal ratio," said Jojo, who claims to only use organic fertilizers on the plants, such as cow dung powder.

The fruit is neither sweet nor flavorful, but it can be made into juice by adding other components like sugar or honey. "We typically use the ripe fruit to generate juice to which additional fruit flavors or juices can be added. It is primarily taken for its medicinal benefits, so it is readily incorporated into food and drinks," explained Jojo, who also uses the raw fruit as a vegetable to prepare thoran and add to curries. "When eaten raw, it tastes a little bitter," he added.

The crimson pulp covering the gac fruit seeds is a good coloring agent and the Vietnamese use it to color rice dishes given at significant occasions such as weddings and festivals.

The goods can be used to make a variety of value-added products such as skin creams, soaps, jams, oils, and so on.

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