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Posted on behalf of Ranee Prakash, Curator of Flowering Plants in the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences.

 

Wadakam (Hello!),

 

We are happy to share our recent journey to the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu, southern India in March - April 2015.

 

Our team from the Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences includes: >

 

The aim of the visit was to consult the herbaria of Botanical Survey of India (BSI) at Coimbatore, and Pune and also to visit Blatter Herbarium, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. We looked at the Solanaceae collections.

 

Apart from visiting BSI’s regional offices, we also visited Madras Christian College (MCC), Presidency College, National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), The Eco Park and the Theosophical Society in Chennai.

 

Xavier also made a brief visit to the French Institute in Pondicherry. The aim of this visit was to investigate the botanical collections of the herbarium of the French Institute, as well as to liaise with the French and Indian researchers working on the Indian flora. They are known to be particularly well curated and informative for the region of Mumbai and Pondicherry, from where Solanum trilobatum L. is native.

 

The Botanical Survey of India (BSI)

 

The BSI was established in 1890, with the main aim of surveying the plant resources and identifying plant species of economic value within the countr. With headquarters in Kolkata, it has ten regional offices in various states of India. It comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.

 

We visited regional offices in Coimbatore and Pune. Coimbatore office has important collections of R.Wight (b. 6 July 1796 – d. 26 May 1872) and other collectors of the Honorable East India Company (EIC).

 

We databased around 400 specimens from both the regional offices. This data will be repatriated back to India. During the visit, Xavier identified Solanum species and recurated the species. For example Solanum xanthocarpum Schrad. & H. Wendl. is now Solanum virginianum L.

 

A detailed list of synonyms, correct taxonomy and pictures of Solanceae species is available on the Solanaceae Source website.

 

Madras Christian College (MCC)

 

Madras Christian College has a beautiful campus spread over 360 acres area with a rich flora and fauna (see Fig. 1). Originally founded by Rev. John Anderson, a Missionary from the Church of Scotland, on April 3, 1837, the college recently celebrated its 178th anniversary. Anderson is known for introducing English medium education in Southern India. MCC is an autonomous college and is renowned for academic excellence and for social commitment.

 

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Fig 1. Madras Christian College, Chennai.

 

We met the faculty staff members: Dr M. Baluswami (Head-Department of Botany), Dr D Narasimhan (Associate Professor), Leslie Lawrence (Assistant Professor) and Sheeba Irwin (Research Assistant). We also had a brief chat with undergraduates and post graduate students and listened to their views on career aspirations.

 

Presidency College

 

Established in 1840, Presidency College is one of the oldest Arts College in Chennai, India. Located opposite the Marina beach in Karmalai area in Chennai, the building has very beautiful architecture (see Fig. 2). The college has various streams viz. Arts, Science, Commerce and has facilities for research leading to Ph.D. degree.

 

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Fig 2. Presidency College, Chennai Ravichandar84.

 

We looked at P.F. Fyson’s (1877–1947) botanical collections stored in the College’s herbarium (see Fig.3). Fyson was a noted botanist and educator who worked in Southern India. During the period of 1920-1925, he served as Inspector of Schools for Vishakapatnam and Ganjam districts (Andhra Pradesh). He later returned to the Presidency College and served as Principal from 1925-1932.

 

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Fig 3. PF Fyson.

 

Fyson is famous for many books and illustrated volumes that he wrote from 1912-1932.In 1912, he wrote a textbook of Botany for college students.

 

He is renowned for the first illustrated volumes of the South Indian Hills, 'The Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney Hill-tops' which was published in 1915. This book has 286 illustrated pages and 483 species. This book was followed with a book on plant species from the lower elevations and notes on the Shevaory Hills in 1921. In 1932, he published 'The Flora of the South Indian Hill Stations', which covered 877 species.  Besides these, he also wrote a book on Madras flowers - illustrated 100 plates, a monograph on the genus Eriocaulon and a Flora of the South Indian Hills.

 

In his honour, the Presidency College, Chennai has instituted 'The Fyson Prize' for work in the area of Natural Sciences. 

 

Theosophical Society at Adyar, Chennai

 

Founded in 1875 in New York, the International Headquarters moved to Adyar, Chennai in 1882. The main aim of this body is universal brotherhood and the members are united to learn the purpose of existence through, self-responsibility, study, reflection and loving service.

 

Located between the Adyar River and the coast, the society is spread in 100-hectare grounds and provide a green, peaceful, vehicle-free retreat from the city. One can wander through the native and introduced flora, including a 400 year old banyan tree. Some of the plants that we saw in the garden and will not forget include the Sandbox tree, also known as Dynamite tree (see Fig. 4).

 

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Fig 4. Hura crepitans, commonly known as sandbox tree.

 

Botanically, this plant is known as Hura crepitans belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family and the Cannon Ball tree - botanically known as Couroupita guianensis belonging to Lecthidaceae family (see Fig. 5a, b).

 

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Fig 5a. Fruits of Couroupita guianensis, commonly known as cannon ball tree.


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Fig 5b. Flower of Couroupita guianensis commonly known as cannon ball tree.

 

The French Institute at Pondicherry

 

Inaugurated after the cessation of French Territories to India in 1955 (i.e. the 5 cities of Pondicherry, Karikal, Yanaon, Mahé and Chandannagar), the French Institute of Pondicherry is very active in the study of South Indian civilisation and culture. Since the 60s, it has also developed an important ecology department, specialised in collecting information on the evolution of the environment in South India. From this time, the researchers of the Institute have constituted a herbarium which counts today more than 24,000 specimens.

 

Xavier visited the herbarium, annotated and databased all the Solanacae specimens present in the collections (more than a 100). This trip to Pondicherry has been also an ideal occasion to exchange contacts with the French and Indian researchers working there on various aspect of the Indian flora (mostly forest ecology), and Xavier has presented his research project during a conference. During a short tour at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden with Soupramanien Aravajy, the most knowledgeable botanist of the IFP, we were happy to find, hidden in the bushes, the small (and terribly spiny!) Solanum trilobatum L. (see Fig. 10).

 

After three days of work in this quiet and beautiful “Petite France”, it was difficult to come back to busy Chennai…

 

Besides visiting the Institutes, we also visited some historic temples in Chennai, Coimbatore, Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) and Madurai belonging to the Chola and Pallava dynasty (around 3rd to 6th century C.E.). We were amazed with the absolute beauty of architectural designs. It was sweltering hot in India with temperatures around 38-40 degrees centigrade but the food was delicious with so many varieties of Kathrik kai (brinjal) (see Figs. 6a & 6b), Valai palam (banana) and the lovely chutneys made from Takali (tomatoes) and puli (tamarind).  We had rice Arisi (rice) for lunch and dinner, lots of keerai (leafy vegetables) and tanni (water) to keep us hydrated!

 

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Fig. 6a. Solanum torvum( sundaikkai) sold in the market.

 

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Fig 6b. Brinjal varieties sold in the market.

 

As our journey came to an end, we would like to reflect on the memorable wander to the Nilgiris, the picturesque memories for years to linger including the highest Peak Point 'Doddabetta' in the Nilgiri Mountains at 2367 metres (8650 feet). This is where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet (see Fig. 7). The endless vibrant greenery of the tea estates (see Fig. 8) (wonder what it must be like when there were undisturbed forests) and the beautiful architectural buildings of the various temples and palaces.

 

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Fig. 7. Doddabetta Peak (highest point 2637m, where the Eastern and Western Ghats meet).

 

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Fig. 8. Tea plantation in the Nilgiris.

 

We would like to convey our warm Nandri (Thank you- in Tamil) and gratitude to all the staff at various Institutes. A special Nandri to Dr D.Narasimhan at MCC, Dr V Sampath Kumar, Dr G V S Murthy, Dr Beniamim, G. Gyanansekaharan and Kannamani at BSI for all the hospitality and help (see Fig. 9).

 

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Fig. 9. Staff at BSI Coimbatore office.

 

 

Great way to collaborate and open the boundaries! Come on India.

 

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Fig. 10. Solanum trilobatum L., growing along the path, Pondicherry Botanical Garden.