mixed cropping in Burma

Mixed crops, unusual or unplanned; taro-ginger-chillie; unsown plants mixed with sown; fruit and beverage trees and bushes on higher land

Taro, ginger and chilli

As described in previous pages, nitrogen-fixing legumes were eminent in most of the mixed cropping encountered, but not all.

One of the most unusual mixtures was taro, ginger and chilli, all grown in one field. Taro Colocasia esculenta produces a tuber, assuming the role taken by swede and turnip, or potato, in the Atlantic zone.  It is generally propagated from cuttings, and takes around a year to grow and mature. In some parts of south-east Asia, the leaves are also eaten.

Ginger, of the Zingiberaceae, is grown as a spice, both for local consumption and for market. As for taro, the tuberous harvest is underground. In some of the farm houses, the harvest was stored as great banks of ginger in dark cellars or lower rooms.

Chillies or hot peppers, species of Capsicum, used to give a fiery flavour to food, are grown widely, both for home use and for the market. For the latter, they are grown in (usually small) fields. The farmsteads had piles of chillies, part dried and ready for transport south to market.

Farmer holding a taro tuber in her outstretched hand, upper inset showing a tuber from the top; and a great pile of chillies, drying ready for market.

The taro-ginger-chilli mixed crops around Kalaw are easy to miss in the dry season. The chili had been harvested and all but a few stalks remained. Most of the ginger had also been removed. The taro was still in the field, and apart from a few drought-withered leaves, was mostly underground, just the tuber’s top showing through the soil.

Again, it would be difficult without detailed study to define the biological advantage of this mixture, other than that three crops could be produced in a year from one piece of land. Chilli grows much faster than taro and is harvested earlier. Like swede and turnip, taro can lie in the ground well after it has matured.

Tea and oranges (all the way from China)

On higher land around Kalaw, arable and horticulture gave way to fruits and beverages. Citrus fruits were seen, named ‘mandarin’ locally, and crab apple, pear, damson, avocado, also coffee and tea.

While some small, single-species orchards occupied the valley bottom, most species were planted together in what appeared to be no particular order, an irregular mixture.

Background: view into a valley and up the other side. Upper insets: orange fruits in an orange-tea mixture. Lower inset: view of orange orchard in the valley bottom, fruits to the bottom left are at camera height.

Perhaps the nearest to a regular mixed crop was tea and oranges [1] planted on partly contoured land. The tea Camellia sinensis in its leaf structure was between the broad, flat Assam type and the narrow, upright China type. There were no associated annual crops and other plants had been mostly cleared.

The bushes were obviously suffering the effects of dryness at this time of year. The soil around individual plants had not been formed into small basins, as is often done on sloping land, to collect rain water. The soil would be prone to severe erosion in the rains. It’s difficult to see how erosion can be controlled and how this practice can be sustained.

The tea is used to make a drink and a pickle. In local ‘cafes’, near-whole leaf, slightly fired perhaps, is added to hot water and left for a few minutes. The taste is somewhere between fired-black and green tea. A ‘pickled tea leaf salad’ is made from tea leaf, nuts (?), peanut oil, soy sauce, seseme seed and leaf vegetables such as cabbage and tomato. A delightful condiment – one of the defining tastes of the journey.

Coexisting with volunteers

Groundnut was often seen growing with ‘volunteer’ crops such as maize and sunflower. Volunteers are plants arising from crops that were grown in a previous year. At harvest, plants drop seed to the soil. The seed remains until the land is recultivated. The seeds germinate and the plants emerge with the intended crop – hence, volunteers.

Volunteers are a feature of cropland throughout the world. In Britain, volunteers are common from oilseed rape, beet, barley, wheat and oat [2]. Since volunteers are not sown, they tend to grow not in rows and often in clumps. If they occur in a crop of the same type – volunteer oilseed rape in sown oilseed rape – they are rarely noticed, but they are more generally treated as a weed.

Driving through groundnut fields; inset shows volunteer maize growing with the groundnut.

In some areas of large scale groundnut cultivation, many volunteers of maize and sunflower had been growing in with the crop. People were actively hand-weeding in the area, but the volunteers appear to have been left in some fields.

At the time of the visit the maize and sunflower volunteers were just about beginning to flower. They may have been left for local consumption in what was otherwise a crop destined for market.

The intended cultivation of ‘weeds’

The final example of a mixed crop is of a type that occurs in many places and in many different combinations. In one small patch by the Irrawaddy, near the unfinished and ruined Mingun Paya, groundnut was growing along with plants of Chenopodium, probably C. album, known as fat-hen in Britain [3].

Hardly any other weeds were present in the field. Our interpreter asked someone nearby, and was told that the weed appeared especially when groundnut is cultivated and that it was left as a crop mixture with the groundnut, then harvested as a leaf vegetable.

By the Irrawaddy, north of Mandalay, groundnut drying in the sun, and above groundnut pods and discarded coconut husks, close to the ruined, brick built Mingun Paya (background image).

Crop-wild combinations such as this were once not unusual in northern Europe, but at a time when crops were fields were managed by hand.

Many other informal associations between legumes and other plants were noted. The nitrogen released from biological fixation most likely supported toddy and coconut palms that were commonly grown within rooting distance of arable fields.

Notes / links

[1] ‘And she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China’ – two lines from the song Suzanne by Leonard Cohen, who died late in 2016 https://www.leonardcohen.com/news

[2] The Living Field web site has pages on volunteers in Britain: www.livingfield.co.uk/crop-weeds

[3| On Fat-hen, Grigson in The Englishman’s Flora writes – ” … it would be grown wherever men threw out their rubbish on to a midden, and its remains have been identified from neolithic villages in Switzerland … it will also grow in fields … the seeds, in which there is fat and albumen. were once eaten as a supplementary food … identified from the Bronze Age in Sussex and Scotland, and they formed part of the last meal of the Tollund Man between 400 BC and 400 AD … the plant can also be eaten as a green vegetable … it was the introduction and increasing cultivation of spinach, an allied plant from south-west Asia, that put an end to the eating of (fat hen) with meat and bacon …” Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman’s Flora. Phoenix House (republished by Paladin 1975).