Neelakurinji: Blue bloom in a blue moon

2018 is the year when the shrub is flowering again in the hills of South India. Here is its story

By V Sundararaju
Published: Thursday 02 August 2018
Neelakurinji in full bloom           Credit: V Sundararaju Neelakurinji in full bloom Credit: V Sundararaju

Kurinji or Neelakurinji, scientifically known as Strobilanthus kunthianus, is a shrub that grows in the shola forests of the Western Ghats in South India. The plant is named after the famous Kunthi River which flows through Kerala’s Silent Valley National Park, where the plant occurs abundantly.  The Kurinji plant belongs to the genus Strobilanthus, family Acanthaceae and was identified in the 19th century. The genus has about 250 species. Out of that, around 46 species are found in India. Kurinji grows to a height of 30 to 60 cm and is found at an altitude of 1,300-2,400 metres.

Most of the Strobilanthus species have an unusual flowering behaviour varying from an annual to 16- year blooming cycles. Characteristics include gregarious flowering, mass seeding and synchronised monocarpy (the characteristic character of certain plants which flower once in their lifetime and die after fruiting).

Honey bees act as pollinators of Neelakurinji. The nectar collected by honey bees from these flowers is found to be very tasty, nutritious and has medicinal values.

Some Kurinji plants bloom once in every seven years and then die. Their seeds sprout subsequently and continue the cycle of life before they die eventually. Strobilanthus kunthianus and other species, that are long interval bloomers, are known as “Plietesials” scientifically. Strobilanthus kunthianus blossoms only once in 12 years. The blooming of this plant has been documented in 1838, 1850, 1862, 1874, 1886, 1898, 1910, 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006 and 2018.

Kurinji has long featured in the culture of South India, especially the modern-day states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In the ancient Sangam literature of Tamilakam or Tamil Country, land was classified into five types. They are Kurinji (mountainous), Mullai (forested), Marutham (agricultural), Neithal (coastal) and Paalai (desert). Tamil scholars opine that this classification was based on the most characteristic plants of these ecosystems: Strobilanthus kunthianus (Kurinji), Jasminum auriculatum (Mullai), Nymphaea nouchali (Neithal) and Wrightia tinctoria (Paalai). The mountainous landscape, referred to as Kurinji, abounded with Kurinji flowers. The Paliyar tribal community that lives in the montane rain forests of the South Western Ghats uses the flowering periodicity of this plant to calculate their age.

Kurinji used to once grow abundantly in the Nilgiri Hills (part of the Western Ghats) in Tamil Nadu. The brilliant blue colour of Kurinji has given the hills the name “Nilgiri”, literally meaning “Blue Mountains”. But presently, plantations and buildings have occupied the hills. In Kerala, the Anamalai Hills of Idukki district, the Agali Hills of Palakkad district and the Eravikulam National Park of Munnar (all in the Western Ghats) also have this plant. In addition to the Western Ghats, Kurinji is also found in the Shevaroy Hills of the Eastern Ghats in Tamil Nadu as well as the Bellary district of Karnataka.

Credit: V SundararajuThe year 2006 was when the Neelakurinji last bloomed in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, after a span of 12 years. The year was declared as the “Year of Kurinji” and a commemorative stamp was released in Kerala. There is a sanctuary in Kottakamboor and Vattavada villages of Idukki district specially meant for conserving Kurinji called “Kurinjimala Sanctuary”.

Twelve years after 2006, the Kurinji is in full bloom again in South India from July this year. It will continue up to the month of November. The best place to see the plant and its blossoms is the hill station of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. The name “Kodaikanal” means “Gift of the Forest” in Tamil. It is referred to as the “Princess of hill stations” and is frequented by tourists, especially during the summer. Kodaikanal is situated on the crown of the Palani Hills, at an altitude of 2,133 metres (6,998 feet) and is surrounded by dense forests. The Paliyar tribes are considered to be the earliest residents of Kodaikanal. References about this enchanting hill station are found in Sangam literature. The famous Kurinji Andavar Temple in Kodaikanal, is named after Kurinji, that carpets the region every 12 years.

Since awareness about Kurinji is not widespread other than among nature lovers, research students and forest officials, the Dindigul district administration (where Kodaikanal lies) has planned to celebrate a grand festival on Kurinji this year in order to make the public aware of this wonderful flowering species. Hoardings will be erected with details of the plant species in the regions where the gregarious flowering is seen. The festival on Kurinji has been planned for this month.

Kurinji is a species that deserves our attention. We have only 10 per cent of Strobilanthus in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The habitats of this plant species, such as the shola forests and the grasslands have been converted into tea and coffee plantations. Indiscriminate planting of exotic species like Pinus, Wattle and Eucalyptus on a large scale also have encroached upon the original habitats of this rare plant species. Increase in tourism, encroachment, water depletion and deposition of plastic waste have further degraded the ecosystem.

As Neelakurinji or Strobilanthus kunthianus occurs in grassland and shola forests, at an altitude of 1,300 to 2,400 metres, it is very essential to maintain and improve the ecosystem without any further degradation and depletion.

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