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Wild oranges at Ajay Valthaje’s farm in Sullia taluk

Wild oranges return with Friends of Mangoes

Shree Padre, Kasaragod

Published: Dec. 08, 2023
Updated: Dec. 08, 2023

TWO months ago, Natesh Konanakatte, a young graftsman from Sagara taluk, posted online that he had identified a wild orange tree called illi hannu in the Mavinasara forest nearby. He also wrote that four years ago, he had planted a graft of a wild orange he had identified. “This year I got 500 oranges from that tree. They are sweet and tasty when they are fully ripe.”

Konanakatte hardly expected the nostalgic response he got. There is a revival of interest in vanishing varieties of wild oranges in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. Ask elders about illi hannu, also known as kadu kittale, a wild cousin of the orange, and they will say they enjoyed the fruit during their childhood but these plants have now vanished.

A recently formed conservationist group in Sullia called Nada Mavina Mitraru or NaMaMi which means Friends of Local Mangoes, embarked on a search for wild orange varieties and unearthed a series of endangered ones.

The illi hannu is not the only  forgotten fruit. There are many more wild cousins of citrus  and orange on the verge of extinction. Fruits like sihi kanchi, hadagina kittale in Kodagu, and nayi kittale in Dakshina Kannada face a similar fate.

Wild orange trees were never planted. The trees that survive are from seeds which germinated naturally and survived in garden corners or nearby forests. The only time people went near these trees was to harvest their fruit.

Scientists are now keen to identify wild oranges and their cousins. Both the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) in Thrissur and the Citrus Research Institute, Nagpur, are keen to identify the best of the lot. The NBPGR advocates registering rare varieties in the names of the farmers  who have saved them.



Those familiar with these fruits say they are quite sour and cannot be eaten. They are not wrong. But a search now reveals that sweeter variants exist and can serve as table fruit too. The difference is that they are smaller and have many more seeds.

Take, for example, kodakittale, a wild orange variety found in Kodagu. Koda means monkey. Everyone knows this is a very sour fruit. It is used as  rootstock for grafting oranges. But, the Central Horticultural Experiment Station (CHES) in Chettally, which comes under the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR) in Bengaluru, has a variant of kodakittale that is very sweet.

Hoodlumane Lakshminarayana Hegde in Siddaour taluk of Uttara Kannada district has a 20-year-old illi hannu tree which bears fruit twice a year. Though a little sour, it is tasty and can be eaten.

In Chikmagalur district, two farmers have flourishing kadu kittale trees. Ten kilometres away from Kalsasa town, the Puranika brothers — Balakrishna and Ramakrishna — used to have many kadu kittale trees on their estate. “Now we have only a few. No one bothers to cultivate these plants since they have no commercial value,” says Ramakrishna Puranika.

“You can consider the fruit ripe when its colour changes to orange,” says Balakrishna. “It has more seeds but children relish these oranges. Taste-wise, such oranges are better than the ones we buy from the market.”

The NaMaMi conservationist group of Sullia at Ajay Valthaje’s house after collecting scions from the nayi kittale tree

K.J. Sachin of Kichabby in N.R. Pura taluk of Chikmagalur district has a 75-year-old kadu kittale tree, planted by his grandfather, on his farm. “We have two trees which yield thousands of oranges that aren’t very sweet. But they are okay as a table fruit,” he says.



The Forestry College of Sirsi, under the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, developed an illi hannu gene pool nine years ago, thanks to the farsightedness of its present dean, Dr R. Vasudeva. “Illi hannu trees were dying on the betta lands. We wanted to know why these trees were dying and decided to start a gene pool. We collected 22 cultivars which have now started fruiting,” he says. Betta lands are forest tracts that were granted to local farmers during British rule.

These 22 cultivars were collected from three taluks of the upper ghats of Uttara Kannada district — Sirsi, Yallapur and Siddapur. Vivek Hegde, a post-graduate student, shouldered the responsibility of identifying and collecting such cultivars. He now works as a forestry expert in Bengaluru.

“Between 2015 and 2016, I visited 60 farmers to search for cultivars. It’s not as if farmers have felled these trees. The trees have dwindled due to fungal diseases like dye-back and stem borer attacks,” says Hegde.

Kadu kittale or illi hannu is almost half the size of an average orange. Most are sour. Even the sweet ones have a certain level of sourness. They also have more seeds though I did find some with less seeds. These cultivars are less productive. In Chavadi Jaddigadde in Hulekal road I got a cultivar that was high-yielding.”

When Manjunath Hegde of Taragod Sirsi heard about Konanakatte grafting and growing a good variety of illi hannu, he recalled another citrus fruit called sihi kanchi that existed as a table fruit decades ago.

“In  Malenadu, we had two types of kanchis about 30 to 40 years ago. One, called huli kanchi, was sour and the other, sihi kanchi, was sweet. Huli kanchi was used for cooking and for certain household medicines. Sihi kanchi was used as a table fruit. We still have some huli kanchi trees but sihi kanchi trees have vanished,” he says.

A search on social media for the wild cousins of orange yielded encouraging results. Radhakrishna B.L. of Nittoor in Shimoga district has a sihi kanchi tree which he has named mosambi kanchi. Once it ripens, the fruit’s skin becomes thin,  yellowish and it is sweeter. The tree yields fruit during the monsoon, from  August to September, and in winter from December to January.

Prasanna Khandika of Sagar in Shimoga district has three sihi kanchi trees. One is about 50 years old. “Sihi kanchi is tastier in winter. Sometimes it is tastier than the mosambi we buy from the market,” he says. The younger plants, he says, produce sour fruit in the initial two or three years. After the tree grows bigger, the fruit turns sweeter.



Meanwhile, Kodagu district has a neglected wild citrus called hadagina kittale. Hadagu means ship while kittale means orange. It is believed that foreigners who came by ship brought this fruit to Kodagu a long time ago. Although it is called an orange, it looks more like a mosambi or sweet lime. This fruit is sour but a search reveals it has sweeter variants.

Shivakumar Kukkemane of Madikeri in Kodagu is a civil engineer and a conservationist who has studied hadagina kittale. “A few planters in Kodagu have retained hadagina kittale trees on their estates,” he says.

In May and June this fruit can be found in weekly markets. “Only those who are familiar with the fruit buy it,” he says. Kukkemane has planted about a hundred plants of this orange on his estate. They are now six years old and yet to start fruiting.

“Kodagu seems to have forgotten this fruit,” says Makkimane Sudhir Kumar of Cheyyandane. “Very few have this tree on their estates.  But once we raise the subject of this endangered fruit species, farmers get interested.”

But hadagina kittale  has one drawback: It is thin-skinned and difficult to peel. So it is difficult to place on the table and serve to guests.

In his search for this variety, Sudhir Kumar has identified two farmers who have sweet hadagina kittale trees that can be comfortably peeled. The first is Purushotham Kashyap of Vinayaka estate who says these fruits are tastier than the mosambi available in the market.

B.S. Harish of Cheyyandane too has a 50-year-old hadagina kittale tree planted by his grandfather. Rajarama Kukkemane, also from Cheyyandane, has a 50-year-old tree as well. Though sweeter, the fruits are not easy to peel. “So we convert it into juice. Our family loves it,” says Rajaram.

“I would say the fruit is 70 percent sweet and 30 percent sour. It can also be kept for 15 to 20 days outside the fridge,” says Sudhir Kumar.

Neglect, attacks by parasites like loranthus and disinterest in planting this variety are the main reasons for the decline of hadagina kittale in Kodagu.

NaMaMi fortunately found a few good cultivars in Sullia. The district’s wild orange variety is  called nayi kittale (nayi means dog). According to locals, it’s a century- old practice in some parts of Karnataka to add this prefix to what villagers consider inferior fruit.

Ajay Valthaje, a farmer in the remote village of Madappady in Sullia taluk, has a nayi kittale tree producing delicious fruit. Jayarama Hadikallu, his neighbour,  informed NaMaMi about this tree. He had a few trees earlier, but they died. The tree, which is 20 years old, wasn’t planted by Valthaje. “The seeds might have come along with flood waters from the rivulet and germinated in my areca garden,” he says.

Ravi Keshava, an areca nut farmer in Duggaladka in Sullia taluk, also has a big nayi kittale tree which yields a bumper crop every November. “All my family members like it. The Coorg orange doesn’t fruit in our area properly. In contrast, nayi kittale fruits every year. If it is in a place that doesn’t get irrigation, the fruit is sweeter.”

NaMaMi, after identifying the two mother trees, acted fast. They collected scions and graft plants that are now ready to be planted by their members. Even urban households can grow this fruit as it comes up nicely in pots.



The CHES in Chettally in Kodagu district, one of the sub-centres of IIHR, used to be an exclusive citrus research station with a huge collection of citrus varieties. They were shifted to the Central Citrus Research Institute in Nagpur.

CHES in Chettally now has very few citrus cultivars in its gene pool. Dr Rajendran and Dr B.M. Muralidhar, the scientists in charge of this facility, are keen to identify all the good cultivars belonging to the wild citrus family which are now endangered.

“We have about 40 citrus cultivars in our collection. If farmers inform us of promising endangered types, we will make efforts to conserve them. We look forward to receiving information about rare wild cousins of orange from Kodagu district. For those keen to plant such rare types, we can provide grafts in due course,” says Dr Muralidhar.

At the South Zone sub-centre of the NBPGR in Thrissur, Principal Scientist Dr K. Pradeep says, “We would be very happy if farmer groups can provide us details of such rare wild citrus cultivars. We undertake 30 to 40 plant variety scouting tours every year.”

“We already have 650 citrus cultivars in our gene bank. We can conserve additional cultivars in our gene bank or at CHES, Chettally. We can also study their genetic characters, plant growth, flowering nature and fruit quality,” says Dr Dilip Ghosh, director, Citrus Research Institute, Nagpur.

Dr Pradeep suggests registering rare varieties in the names of farmers who have conserved them. “Farmer groups or organizations need to involve scientists and seriously consider registering such rare varieties so that they get due recognition and whatever benefits that accrue along with it,” he says.

To conserve rare wild citrus varieties, four steps are necessary:  Identification of the best cultivars, their evaluation, propagation of short-listed ones, and promotion to create interest among people and raise the status of wild oranges.

Wild orange trees are disappearing because of neglect. But they hardly ask for much — some sunshine, manure, and a little attention to help them blossom. The wild orange must get the space it deserves for it enhances India’s genetic biodiversity. 


Those keen to plant the illi hannu grafts of the best cultivars from the Forestry College may contact graftsman Umamaheshwar Hegde at 99027 10038, 94807 71142  between 6 pm and 7 pm. 

For koda kittale and other wild citrus varieties, contact Dr Muralidhar, CHES, Chettally, at 78928 82351.



  • Anil G

    Anil G - Jan. 30, 2024, 10:32 a.m.

    I have been an old admirer of the writings of Shree Padre. The article is full of wonderful insights about the urgent need for a policy on in situ conservation of agro-biodiversity, in this case, oranges. We should help the conservators characterize these varieties and identify the unique features. I hope local communities will continue to conserve these so that in future our society finds some very important gene pools for solving emerging challenges due to climate fluctuation.