Last week we introduced you to an up-and-coming biofuel tree called pongam, which we called the “Ginsu knives of treedom” because they seemed to have a thousand and one uses – aside from extracting oil from their seeds for making biofuel, that is. Well, it looks like we just scratched the surface because we’ve been tipped on a few more uses, too.
Restoring Depleted Soil with a Biofuel Crop
The biofuel company we featured last week, TerViva, got back to us with a note that they’ll be establishing their special strain of Pongamia in “abused” former pineapple plantations, where the trees will help replenish nutrients in the soil with their nitrogen-fixing ability. That underscores the potential for biofuel crops to play a role in soil restoration projects on lands that are no longer fit to grow food, rather than competing for land with food crops.
Biofuels, Bovines and Honeybees
TerViva also noted that cattle will happily eat the nitrogen-rich grass around pongam trees but they are not interested in the leaves, so there is a potential for farmers to extract a bit of extra value from a pongam grove by doubling it up as a grazing area for livestock, without fear of having their crop devoured. According to researchers at the University of Queensland, honeybees like the pollen from pongam blossoms, enabling farmers with an apiary to squeeze out a little extra value, too.
Saving Land…Or Blowing it Up
Pongam trees can provide shade and stabilization for weakened lands while providing oil-rich seeds for decades, to say nothing of the aforementioned feast for cattle, bees, and other co-existent wildlife (pongam trees are pest-resistant, by the way). This benign and productive harvest is quite a contrast with fossil fuels, which aside from the risk posed by spills, accidents or leaking pipelines can, in the case of tar sands oil and mountaintop removal coal mining, involve harvesting methods that by nature destroy everything in their path.
A Pongam Tree in Every Pot
For now, TerViva is focusing on introducing pongam trees into Citrus Belt states such as southern Texas, Florida, and Hawaii. Pongam trees are not naturally cold tolerant, but…
TerViva is working on developing a strain that could adapt to a wider range of climates. In the meantime, pongam could emerge as an important economic tool in semi-arid tropical regions such as parts of India, enabling developing communities to raise a cash crop without impinging on the land they need to grow food.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
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