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Neelakurinji

The year is 2006. In the months of September – December, many hillsides in the Western and Eastern Ghats are clothed in purple-blue. For, this is when the famed Neelakurinji is in full bloom. If Neelakurinji has acquired great fame, there obviously has to be a reason. One of the reasons is that this plant flowers once in 12 years. This fact no doubt makes the plant famous but also evokes wonder and in this age of rapid advancements in all branches of science, the greatest wonder is that so little is known about this famed plant!

The first urge when we see something is to name it. The plant has thus acquired the name. In the local dialect, neela means blue. Once named, other questions arise.

  • Why does the plant flower once in 12 years?
  • Do we know for sure that it really flowers in 12 year periods?
  • How does the plant know when it is time to flower again?
  • What happens to the plant after it finishes flowering?
  • What are the other features of this plant?
  • What conditions are conducive for its growth?
  • Do all Neelakurinji plants share common characteristics?
  • Where else apart from these hills does this plant grow?

A scientist job is to find answers to these and many more questions. But as school teachers and students can we also take part in this adventure?

  • First of all, we can start off by observing the plant. The height to which they grow; the nature of its stem and branching pattern; the shape, size, colour and structure of its leaves and flowers; parts of the flower; the root structure, etc.
  • We can identify the geographical regions where these plants grow; the terrain and soil conditions.
  • We can compare plants from different regions and find out if they are identical.
  • We can ask local people what they already know about this plant and if they use it for any purpose.
  • We can read about this plant and if possible learn more from a local botanist.

Once we do all this, we will have a lot of information. This can perhaps then be used to explain what we see and know.

As a starting point, here is some information about Neelakurinji.

The plant belongs to a family of plants known as Acanthaceae. The general characteristics of plants that belong to this family are:

  • These plants are herbs, shrubs or climbers.
  • Leaves are simple, opposite and decussate (each pair of leaves at right angles to those immediately below or above them), leaf pairs are often of unequal size.
  • Flowers have fused petals and sepals; 2-4 stamens, ovary superior
  • Fruits are bilocular capsule with numerous seeds, the capsule is explosively dehiscent when mature and exposed to moisture.

In the family of Acanthaceae, Neelakurinji belongs to a sub group (genus) of plants called Strobilanthes. This genus or sub group has many members. Members are called species. In our country, there are 46 species of Strobilanthes according to J. S. Gamble, author of “The flora of the Presidency of Madras (1915-35)”. The various species have slight differences. They are known to have different flowering periods ranging from 1 to 16 years. They also differ in their habit, height, branching pattern, shape and texture of leaves, flowers and inflorescence. The flowers are purple, violet, pink and white. The general characteristics of these flowers are that they are tubular. The genus Strobilanthes, according to recent classification by taxonomist has been split into several genera such as niligirianthus, carvia, phlebophyllum, pleocaulus, mackenzeia, etc. One of the criteria for this splitting is the pollen grains have different sculpturing (structure of the pollen wall).

Plants belonging to Strobilanthes are generally perennials. Some species retain their root-stock without becoming apparent every year. That is though the plant is not visible above the ground it is very much alive under ground. Some however, are seen annually, especially in the shaded places of shola forests.

Neelakurinji grows gregariously in the grasslands of Western and Eastern Ghats at altitudes of 1800 to 2400 metres. When in bloom, hills in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are resplendent with purple blooms of this plant. As can be expected, though the flower is called Neelakurinji in all places, the plant species found in all these places are not identical. While some plants are stated to flower once in 12 years, others have a periodicity anywhere between 1 and 16 years. Scientists are yet to arrive at a complete map of all the species but believe that some of these species are endemic to this region.

Strobilanthes kunthianus is the botanical name given to the species that has a flowering periodicity of 12 years. This species is seen extensively in Kodaikanal and Munnar. However, one is not sure if this is found in other places in Western and Eastern Ghats.

Another example is the species Strobilanthes sessilis. Sessiloides is a variety of this species found in Mullayanagiri, which is part of the Baba Budan Giri Hill Ranges. At 1930 meters, Mullayanagiri is the tallest peak in Karnataka. The photographs included here are of this species. The name of this genus is now Pleocaulus sessiloides (Clarke) Bremekamp. The tubular flowers are blue-purple with an ureolate (slight bulge in the middle) corolla. It has four stamens of which two are longer. The leaves are sessile (stalkless), ovate and rugose-bullate (thick wrinkled and puffed up surface between the veins which are prominent) with crenate (round toothed) margins. Stem, leaves as well as the inflorescence are covered with delicate hairs.

People have reported seeing similar plants flowering annually or in periodicity other than 12 years in other parts of the Western and Eastern Ghats. If we examine these plants, we would know if they belong to either one of these species or any one of the 46 species. Only a systematic study will help us understand them better.

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