Income: Not long ago, Sangay Wangdi planted a zati pani (betel leaf) plant outside his house. A doma (areca nut) addict, he thought if the plant survived, he wouldn’t have to buy the leaves.

The vine not only survived, it thrived and the Pemathang villager is all smiles with money now growing on trees. Besides supplying to the family and sometimes to neighbours, Sangay Wangdi suddenly found that the leaves had become a good source of cash income.

As long as the doma chewing habit thrives, Sangay Wangdi will have a good income. He earns about Nu10, 000 a month selling the leaves. “When I am need of cash, all I do is pick some leaves and visit the paan shops,” he said. Each heart shaped leaf is sold for one Ngultrum making the vine now a prized plant in the gewog.

Some villagers planted the climber to fill the barren land in the gewog or as ornamental plants in front of their house. Now the leaves are giving them the reason to smile when, for instance, the vegetable crop fails. “We didn’t know paan leaves would actually help us earn when in emergency,” Sangay Wangdi said.

Bhutan imports almost all its paan leaves from India. The locally grown are not in demand as much as the broader leaves from the plains.

Pemathang villagers said the paan shops buy from them as they sell 15 leaves for Nu 15 while they pay about Nu 150 for a bundle of leaves containing about 20 leaves,” Wangchuk, a farmer said. “When ever they run out of leaves, shopkeepers come to us to buy betel leaves.”

The betel leaf, however, is not the main cash crop as the villagers depend on vegetables produce.  It is an emergency source of cash. “It doesn’t require too much care or dries,” Sangay said. “So that is why we are able to sell when ever we can.”

Although none of the villagers have considered growing the vine on a commercial scale of making it the main cash, farmers said they are growing more every year.

Zati pani grows in most places along the southern border, according to a doma seller at the Farmers Centenary Market in Thimphu. However she said those who are addicted to the habit would not prefer the leaf. “It is rougher, and reddens the lips more than other leaves,” she said. “Its is a good substitute in the villages where villagers need not buy the softer leaves.”

Yangchen C Rinzin,  Samdrupcholing