Agar oil and agaru or agarwood are the most exalted perfumery raw material obtained from the infected wood of agar tree. This transformed wood due to fungal infection yields agar oil on distillation that has unique fragrance and high export value. The agar oil known in the East as Agar-attar is one of the perfumery’s oldest materials. It is considered one of the costliest perfumery raw materials used in high-class perfumery and as a fixative, imparting a lasting balsamic odour to the product. Its traditional use in India, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern perfumery, both as skin daub and as a fixative, rivals its former usage holy incense by the Hebrews.
Agar tree (Aquilaria agallocha) is distributed in all the Northeastern States and widely cultivated. It is now rarely found in wild state.
Variation within species In Assam two types of A. agallocha could be identified as ‘Jati Sanchi’ and ‘Bhola sanchi in the population. ‘Bhola sanchi’ is comparatively of quick growing but yield is less than that of Jati sanchi. It is the Jati sanchi that is preferred for commercial cultivation. Agar plantation Soil and Climate Agar plant prefers high humid, sub-tropical climate with rainfall 1800-3500 mm per annum. It grows from sea level upto 500-m altitudes. It is a sun-loving plant and requires lot of sunshine. It prefers well-drained deep sandy loam-to-loam rich in organic matter but can profitably be grown in marginal soils and also in shallow soils over rocky beds with cracks and crevices. It grows well in hill slopes and forest environment. The traditional agar growing areas show that it prefers acidic soil reaction.The mycorrhiza and other beneficial fungi which seems to be responsible for oil formation in the agar tree being soil borne requires acid soil for their population build up.
Field layout Agar is a long-term plantation crop. A profitable plantation may be of 12 years cycle or more. The Short cycle plantation yields only essential oil or ‘agar attar’ of low quality (Boya oil). The plantation may be planned in two ways: (a) Planting at wider spacing along with some suitable intercrops and harvesting at the end of the crop cycle. (b) Planting at comparatively closure spacing and harvested at 2-3 phases. In the second approach about 8-10 years of planting about 40 % selected trees may be harvested with a view to thin out the plantation for better growth and development of the remaining trees and also to get a substantial income. Planting time Planting should be done when the plants have the greatest chances of survival. The best time is during the rainy season (May-September). Agar in tea garden Planting Under average condition spacing ranges between 2.5-5 m, (initially accommodating about 1700 plants per hectare) which at later stages i.e., after 8-10 years of growth maintained at 4-5 m by harvesting in phase manner. When the planting is raised with some other forest species the spacing may be given accordingly. The distance for avenues and public places depends upon the situations and purpose of planting which may range between 3-4 m.
Planting of the saplings is done in well-prepared pits of size 50 x 50 x 50 cm made in advance and preferably in the evening time or during the cloudy weather. After planting staking should be done to keep the seedling in upright position and the soil around the plant should be firmly consolidated. Immediately after the planting, watering is necessary (if no rains).
In no case, the soil around the root be disturbed or removed during planting. In the open and in public places the newly planted seedlings are to be protected in cages till they grow fairly large. For better and faster growth of the plant, the pits should be weeded and hoed to keep the soil loose and free from weeds.
Agar in Agro-forestry Agar tree is suitable for growing on field boundaries and for dividing whole plot into sub-plots. Not only this, agar tree is also grown on borders of gardens, school compounds, office compounds, parks and residential sites. The good capacity for pollarding and coppicing has made it suitable to fit in agro-forestry. The canopy of Agar tree is such that it allows sunshine penetration partly. Thus, it can be planted in field boundaries, bunds etc., without affecting the field crops.
Besides, agar tree has been successfully grown for strip planting along banks of ponds, tanks, canals and roads. In hilly areas / tillas as in Barak valley it can be planted on poor soils on hill slopes, tilla tops. They help in reducing soil erosion and land sliding caused by rushing water during rainy season.
Agar tree could successfully be introduced in Social Forestry and also in afforestation programme.
Agar in Tea / Coffee garden Tea growing situation is also ideal for agar tree. The increasing demand of agarwood, it is being introducing as shade tree in tea plantation particularly in Upper Assam with success. Agar tree is evergreen and with spreading canopy it allows partial penetration of sunshine through it. Regular looping of branches above tea bushes is necessary.
Cultural operation Soil working to a radius of 50 cm is to be done once in 3-4 months. Fertilizer application should also be followed by these operations preferably twice in a year, before and after monsoon from second year onwards.
Agar seedlings are foraged by goats or cattle. To protect plantation, fencing is necessary. Initial 4-5 years period should be protected from farm animals. Trenching around the plantation has also given good success. All the replacements of casualties should be done in the same planting season and if necessary second replacement may be done during the second year using large size seedlings.
Intercropping Vegetables/pulses or aromatic crops like Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), Sugandhmantri may be cultivated as short season/short term intercrops during first three to five years of plantation. In the later stages shade loving medicinal plants like Sarpagandha (Rouvolfia serpentina), long pepper (Piper longum) may also be grown for another few years depending on plant population and land type. Ginger/Turmeric may also be planted leaving about 50 cm around plant base. Both the crops are exhaustive in nature for which some special care has to be taken. This type of crops should not be taken more than two seasons.
Manuring It is not necessary to apply inorganic fertilizers at the time of planting. Fertilizers should be applied after complete establishment and only from second year of planting.
Well-decomposed cow dung/FYM @ 5 -10 kg/pit of size 50 cm3 may be applied in pit and well mixed with soil prior to planting. Un-decomposed FYM or fresh cow dung should not be applied in any case. The rhizosphere of Agar tree (0 - 45 cm) exhibits a higher rate of microbial population when organic manures are used.
Fertilizer application N, P2O5 and K2O at 10: 10: 4 ratios as per the following schedule may be applied from second year onward preferably in two splits-
Second year …… 200 g/ tree Third year ……. 300 g/ tree Fourth year onward. 500 g/ tree
The fertilizers should be applied along with decomposed cow dung / compost @10 -15 kg/ tree. In the virgin forestland initially no fertilization is required. Later depending on crop growth fertilization may be resumed accordingly. From 6-7 years of growth nitrogenous fertilizer @ 400-500 g/ tree per year may be applied in two splits during pre and post monsoon period. This may help in keeping the tree wood soft, with higher content of cell sap enabling easy insect boring followed by fungal infection and spread of infected area over a larger wood volume ie, higher rate of bioconversion.
To be continued................
Formation of agar oil and ‘agaru’ The infection of fungi occurs when stem injured or is bored by a larvae of a stem borer mainly Zeuzera conferta Walker. It is seen that the larvae of Z. conferta bore the tanding tree trunk of A.agallocha Roxb and make tunnels inside the tree trunks. Fungus enters the plant through this vertical hollow sometimes-zigzag tunnel inside the stem, which serves the initial sites of infections. Later on infections spread on all sides slowly and gradually and ultimately a larger wood volume gets infected. More insect infestation in the infected area more is the chances to form agar wood in 2-3 years time after infection. Agarwood formation is the resinification of accumulated oleoresin due to the action of microorganisms.
Infections may also occur due to mechanical or natural injuries on the stem but it is very much localized. Due to infections oleoresins are accumulated in the infected wood and later become odoriferous. At the initial stage infections appear as brown streaks in the tissue. Accumulation of oleoresins goes on increasing with the increase of infection rate as well as aging of infection. As more of oleoresins are deposited the intensity of colour of the infected wood increases and finally it becomes black due to increase in concentration.
For agaru formation the hollow tunneling inside the trunk/stem of the living tree seems to be necessary.
The fungal infection takes long time to mature and trees about 50 years old have the highest concentration (2.5 - 5.0 kg/tree). Sometimes all the tissues under the bark of the tree may be found synthesizing oil and also agarwood. True agarwood is heavier than water.
If the infection starts at a young age say at the age of 5 – 6 years, then a total 10 years age may be sufficient to get commercial agarwood or agaru in a plant. Without infection century old tree may not bear a microscopic piece of agarwood. Based on the intensity of attack the trees can be grouped as healthy, slightly attacked, moderately attacked and severely attacked trees. In a natural population about 25 to 30% of the trees may get infected and thus productive.
Cultural treatment to augment oil formation
Formation of agarwood can be initiated by the creation of open wound on the trunk of agar tree. It is a common practice now a days to apply mechanical injuries in the stem, branches at regular intervals for early infection. This is done just before breaking the dormancy i.e. before spring by giving a deep slanting cut with a sharp Dao (a multipurpose heavy knife) or Axe. These injuries are to provide ready infection sites and also to push the tree to undergo a stress condition, which helps in spreading of infection. This practice yields better result where there is already built up microbial population in soil and also the climate is warm and humid. These cut injuries serve the initial sites of fungal infection. The ‘Dum type’ product obtained out of this treatment for oil extraction is locally known as “Ghap mal”. A 20 years old tree that may produce only 5-10 kg of ‘Dum’ without any treatment (which is due to natural injuries and mostly obtained at the junctures of broken branches) when treated by mechanical injuries is found to yield more than 30 kg in about 2 years.
Artificial inoculation Artificial inoculation technique already developed and standardized in lab scale is found to be most effective and reliable method for enhancement of agar production. Works on commercializations are in progress and expected to make available for general use in the field.
Detection of productive trees Since agar is located deep within the trunk, its detection from outer appearance is not easy. Generally, such trees are distinguished by certain external features whether or not the tree harbours precious agar oil or agaru deposits. These include: (a) A poor crown, decayed branches, and uneven bole; (b) Swelling or depressions and cankers on the bole; (c) The appearance of hordes of ants in the fissures; (d) A distinctly yellowish to brownish tinge in the wood under the outer bark; and (e) Signs of ill-health particularly a die-back symptoms of the top and outer branches and a yellow tint to the woody tissues. The visible wounds, cankers on the bole, stem distortions, smaller leaves and the rotten branches provide evidences of agaru deposits within a tree. Wood assumes distinctly yellowish tinge when agar formation takes place. The normal wood in the healthy trees is of pale brown buff colour. The change can be observed by removing the bark of the tree. Sometimes screw augers are driven inside at various depth and samples are drawn for examination. Finally the odour on examination by drawing samples with the help of screw augurs. The disease or the fungal infection usually takes some time to make it manifest, hence agaru is hardly found in young shrubs.
Harvesting The physical age, growth rates and / or wood volume or physiological maturity do not govern the harvesting age of agar tree for commercial purpose. It is the infected tree and whose further growth is arrested due to physiological imbalance is harvested and yields agarwood and oil.
Generally, the bad and deformed trees attain harvestable first unlike other forest species. The healthy trees are left to undergo stresses or subject to infection either naturally or artificially to induce oil formation. The harvesting is done on selection and continues for a longer period from a plantation raised at the same time.
Harvesting time Although the collection of agar trees for oil extraction as well as for agaru is done almost throughout the year, the best time is during February-May, the dry season when the plants remain almost dormant or less active. During this period maximum concentration of oil with less waxy substances is obtained. When stress is more bio-molecule concentration is also more. The extracted oil during dry season possesses the finest odour and note compared to that obtained during rainy season when the plant remains active in growth.
Yield The yield of commercial products of agar tree is not uniform in all productive trees. It varies greatly and is almost unpredictable. After 10 years of planting with intensive management each infected tree may yield about 30-40 kg ‘Dum type’ to Kolagachi’ product for oil extraction, depending on infection intensity. Therefore, quality of oil varies depending on types of wood used for distillation.
Agar processing Two types of commercial products are obtained from a harvested agar tree (a) agaru or agarwood that is used as incense and (b) Essential oil or agar oil or agar attar. Agaru is obtained from older trees while oil is distilled from old as well as younger trees. After felling a tree, the leaves and smaller branches are removed. Then the tree is cut into logs (pieces of 2-2.5 ft.). Thereafter, the logs are splitted to separate out the infected and non-infected woods. The agarwood of any grade if detected is first separated out with the help of indigenous tools like hacksaw blade and ‘Batali’ and graded them based on the oleoresin impregnation, colour density, specific gravity and finally the odour. These are then dried, cleaned by removing the white woody portions as far as practicable, polished and graded for marketing.
Agar oil is obtained by steam distillation of harvested wood chips or coarse powder in special type of distillation unit. Distillation is continued for 5-10 days or more using firewood as the energy source.
The Gross income would be around Rs. 2, 20.00.000 (Rupees Two crores twenty lakhs)
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