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Climate zone: Tropical – Subtropical

Have you ever heard of Pongamia? Pongamia [/pɑŋɡejmiə/] or the Pongame oil tree is a medium-sized, deciduous tree that can grow up to 18 meters in height. It has a short bole that spreads and is semi-evergreen. The bark can be smooth or covered in tubercles and might be grayish-green or brown. Pongamia, fully written as Pongamia pinnata, is a legume tree that produces up to 10,000–40,000 oil-rich seeds per tree and grows quickly at the vegetative stage. It has attractive clusters of flowers for ornamentation.  The tree is treasured for its seed oil, which has medicinal and lubricating properties and the potential to be utilized as biofuel. The tree is also known as Millettia pinnata, Malapari, Karanja Tree, Indian Beech Tree, and Honge Tree.

Similar to soybeans, the Pongamia tree produces beans that are high in protein and oil, but it has the potential to provide significantly more nutrition per acre. It can thrive without irrigation or pesticides on nearly any land, no matter how degraded. 

From flowering until harvest, Pongamia pods and seeds typically go through four phases of development: 

  • early green, 
  • immature pod stage; 
  • half-brown pod stage; and 
  • late dark brown pod stage. 

After reaching complete seed maturity, the oil content of the seeds stays constant rather than increasing as the tree matures. 

From ‘A critical review of Pongamia pinnata multiple applications: From land remediation and carbon sequestration to socioeconomic benefits’ ScienceDirect

Where does Pongamia come from?

The Pongamia tree prefers heat, although it may thrive at lower temperatures and can endure a mild frost. It is found in humid, subtropical, tropical regions and in dry environments. This is because it has a very low water demand. 

Pongamia is originally an Indo-Malaysian species primarily found in the littoral regions of South-Eastern Asia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaya, Australia, Florida, Hawaii, Malaysia, Oceania, Philippines, Polynesia, and Seychelles. The plant may be found all throughout India, from the eastern or central Himalayas to Kanyakumari. 

The tree, which is thought to be a native of the Western Ghats, is most frequently seen next to streams, rivers, and the sea, on beaches and tidal woods. It may grow anywhere dry and far within up to a height of 1000m. It is also well-adapted to all soil types and climatic conditions. 

Additionally, the tree is grown in regions like Africa, the US, and several others. 

Growing Pongamia

The most well-known approach for producing new Pongamia plants quickly and affordably in huge quantities is seed propagation. While seed propagation is easy, careful management of germination conditions is required.

Research has also shown that Pongamia could be vegetatively propagated through stem cuttings.

Typically, the plant begins producing pods in its fifth year and continues to produce more each year until it stabilizes in its tenth year. Generally, the seeds are gathered in the spring and range in weight from around 1.1 grams to 1.8 grams. Depending on the circumstances, the output per tree can be between 10 kilograms (22 lb) and 50 kilograms (110 lb), with an average of 1500-1700 seeds per kilogram. 

Depending on the season and the tree’s development, the fundamental nutritional components of Pongamia seeds may differ. 

Distinctive uses of Pongamia

Both people and animals can benefit greatly from Pongamia. Its fragrant blossoms, prized as decorative trees, provide a source of pollen and nectar for bees to make black honey. The leaves are also used medicinally in several ways. The seeds’ oil can be used to treat rheumatic and skin conditions. Additionally, liver problems, dyspepsia, and stomachaches are all treated with it. The seed powder is also suggested as a tonic for fevers and is used to treat bronchitis, whooping cough, and other illnesses. 

The leaves are a valuable source of fodder for livestock farmers, especially for cattle and goats. Additionally, leaf dropping creates a lot of organic litter that animals may eat. Press cakes, made from the oil extracted from the seeds, can be fed to ruminants and poultry or used as fertilizer. The usage of seed oil as lamp fuel, a component in soaps, varnishes, and paints, an insect deterrent for storage rooms, and a mosquito repellant has been introduced previously. The ashes produced can be used as a coloring agent and the wood can be used as fuel, frequently as charcoal. 

  • Wood: The wood of pongamia trees is frequently utilized as fuel wood. The texture of the wood is medium to coarse. Pongamia wood is not regarded as being very durable and is vulnerable to insect attack. It also has the propensity to split when in use. The wood is, therefore, not regarded as being of high grade. Cabinets, cart wheels, posts, agricultural equipment, tool handles, and combs are all made from the wood.
  • Oil: A rich, yellow-orange to brown oil is produced from the seeds. A mechanical expeller makes yields of 20-25% of volume feasible. The oil is not regarded as edible because of its bitter flavor and unpleasant scent. Oil is utilized as a fuel for cooking and lighting in India. The oil is furthermore utilized as a diesel alternative. The oil is employed in the lubricant, insecticide, water-paint binder, soap-making, and tanning sectors. Rheumatism and human and animal skin conditions are known to be treated using oil in herbal therapy. It works well to improve the skin’s pigmentation in leucoderma patients.
  • Fodder and feed: Animals that are grazing and foraging shy away from the plant material. Due to the negative effects of the anti-nutritional/toxic elements found in the seed cake, it is not frequently utilized as a feed for cattle and poultry. However, detoxified seed cake has been effectively included in animal feed.
  • Medicinal properties: Even though all portions of the plant are unpleasant for animals to ingest due to their ability to make them sick,  the fruits, sprouts, and seeds are all components of several conventional herbal treatments. The plant’s juices and oil are both antiseptic and pest-resistant.
  • Proteins for Human Diet: Pongamia seed meal, an oil-rich byproduct with a greater proportion of protein and the potential to be free of alkaloids, could be a source of supplemental protein for the human diet. The Pongamia seed cake, left behind after extracting the oil, makes a superior high-protein feed for animals.
By @rawjeev / Rawlife / Rajeev B – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The market value of pongamia

Pongamia oil is expected to cost between AUD $2.22 and AUD $0.64 per liter when supplied, with annual seed production per tree ranging from 20 to 80 kg (in shell). At a planting density of 357 plants per hectare, the seed output range of 20 to 80 kg per tree is comparable to between 7 and 29 tonnes per hectare. The capital costs of land purchase, plantation setup, and crushing plant materials make up significant portions of the delivered cost of Pongamia oil. Mechanical harvesting, fertilizer, weed, pest, and disease management, seed crushing, and shipping oil to a refinery are some of the primary operating expenses. In India, mature trees of Pongamia may produce 9 to 90 kilograms of seeds yearly, which translates to a potential output of 900 kg to 9,000 kg per hectare. This differs slightly from Australian yields ranging from 20 kg to 80 kg per tree.

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