Wildlife & Biodiversity

Fact check: Is it really Neelakurinji that is blooming in Chikkamagaluru

Media outlets and tourists might have well confused the Neelakurinji with another shrub of the same genus

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 27 September 2022

The Karvy (top) and the Neelakurinji (bottom)The Karvy (top) and the Neelakurinji (bottom)

Social media in India has been awash since the past three days with photos of a ‘Neelakurinji’ bloom in the Bababudangiri range of the Western Ghats in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district. The Neelakurinji is a shrub of the Acanthaceae family that famously blooms once every 12 years. But are the blossoms in Chikkamagaluru actually Neelakurinji?

Down To Earth spoke to three researchers who work in the Western Ghats and queried them on the identity of the flowers. DTE also showed them some of the photographs from Chikkamagaluru that have been doing the rounds of the internet.

They were of the view that while some of the photos did show Neelakurinji flowers, others showed the Topli Karvy, another shrub of the Acanthaceae family.

Strobilanthes is a genus of about 350 species of flowering plants in the family Acanthaceae, mostly native to tropical Asia and Madagascar.

“The Topli Karvy (Strobilanthes sessilis), the Karvy (Strobilanthes callosa) and the Kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), all belong to the Strobilanthes genus,” Mandar Datar, a taxonomist with the Agharkar Research Institute in Pune, told DTE.

“The external resemblance of these flowers being taxonomically related, is very similar. People can often get confused,” he added.

Of the four photos that DTE shared with Datar, he identified three to be Neelakurinji and one to be Topli Karvy.

The Topli Karvy is found more in the northern section of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. It is called so since it resembles and inverted basket, Jui Pethe, an ecological researcher, who works in the Maharashtra section of the Ghats, told DTE.

“The Karvy (Strobilanthes callosa) grows on the steepest cliffs where trees can’t grow. The Topli Karvy grows on the plateaus of the northern Western Ghats on the other hand. The Neelakurinji on the other hand grows in the shola grasslands of the southern Western Ghats, which are not found in Maharashtra,” Pethe added.

Godwin Vasanth Bosco, restoration ecologist author of the book Voice of a Sentient Highland on the Nilgiri Biosphere, said the Neelakurinji was endemic to the southern Western Ghats and higher reaches of the Eastern Ghats.

The shola forests are patches of stunted tropical montane forests surrounded by grasslands in the high elevations of southern India spread over the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

“These shrubs expend a lot of energy to flower once in 12 years (or in the case of the Topli Karvy once in 11 years). These shrubs die after that,” he said.

Bosco added that the shola forests and grasslands were facing grave threats at the moment largely from anthropogenic activity as well as invasive species and climate change

“Be it any of these shrubs, they are very important for pollinators such as honey bees. We have to be very sensible as tourists whenever we are visiting areas where they are endemic. Even if we find them in our backyards, we should not remove them and replace them with something exotic,” Pethe added.

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