In God’s Own Country, a very special creation takes place once in twelve years. A mesmerizing natural wonder, that is witnessed through the mass flowering of a single plant species – Strobilanthes kunthianus, popularly known as Neelakurinji.
Neelakurinji is a shrub that used to grow abundantly in the shola grasslands of Western Ghats in South India above 1800 metres. The Nilgiris, which literally means the blue mountains, got its name from the purplish blue flowers of Neelakurinji that blossoms gregariously only once in 12 years.
Neelakurinji is the best known of a genus that has flowering cycles ranging from one to 16 years. Plants that bloom at long intervals like kurinji are called plietesials. The genus has around 300 species, of which at least 46 occur in India. Besides the Western Ghats, Neelakurinji is seen in the Shevroys in the Eastern Ghats. It occurs at an altitude of 1300 to 2400 metres. The plant is usually 30 to 60 cm high on the hills. They can, however, grow well beyond 180 cm under congenial conditions.
It was the Geman botanist Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck (February 1776 – March 1856) who nomenclatured Neelakurinji as Strobilantehs Kunthiana. The standard botanical author abbreviation for him isNees. He classified Neelakurinji to be of : –
Kingdom : Plantae
Division : Magnoliophyta
Class : Magnoliopsida
Order : Lamiales
Family : Acanthaceae
Genus : Strobilanthes
Species : S. kunthiana
On the hills, the plant usually grow 30 to 60 cm in height, but under more favorable conditions they can grow well beyond 180 cms. It can be found only in high altitudes between 1,600 metres and 2,600 m and what makes it so special, apart from its beauty, is that it blooms only once in 12 years. The mass flowering and subsequent death of the Kurinji is the subject of hill folklore.
Although Neelakurinji has flowering cycles ranging from one to 16 years, it has been flowering every 12 years since 1800. What triggers the massive flowering every 12 years is not known. Plants that bloom at long intervals like this is called plietesials. But stray flowerings do occur in between. The flowering season comes between August and November and peak in late September and October although some varieties exhibit little variation. It looks light blue in the early stage of blooming and has purplish blue colour when aged.
Neela means blue in Malayalam language and Kurinji is the local name of the flower. For those in Munnar, the blooming of Kurinji flower is a reminder that their lives have gone past another twelve years and for those from far off places it maybe once in a life time opportunity to witness the Kurinji flowers covering the hills of Munnar in a blanket of blue.
The Nilgiris, which means blue mountains, got its name from the blue flowers of Neelakurinji. Once they used to cover the entire Nilgiris like a carpet during its flowering season. However, now plantations and dwellings occupy much of their habitat. The departments of Tourism, Forests and Wildlife have initiated a campaign for the preservation of Neelakurinji and its natural habitat.
The Blooming of Neela Kurinji in 2006
In 2006, Kurinji (neelakurinji) bloomed gregariously at several places near Kodaikanal (India) and Munnar. The biggest flowering was at the Eravikulam National Park.
At the National park, carpets of flowers formed at the Turner’s Valley (about 16 km inside the park), Poovar and on the hills near the Lakkom Muthuvakudy besides the tourist zone at Rajamala..
It also bloomed gregariously on the hills between Klavarai in Tamil Nadu and Koviloor in Kerala, especially in the Kadavari area. These areas are now within the newly formed Kurinjimala Sanctuary.
Patches of kurinji occur in the remaining sholas near Koviloor. Koviloor is a few hours drive from Munnar in Kerala. A jeep road connects Koviloor to Klavarai and Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu). Theroad need not be motorable all the time (especially during monsoon).
Trekkers could spot kurinji by the sides of the old Munnar Kodaikanal road. Trekking would require permission from the Forest Department. The plants can also be located at places such as Yellapetty and Kanthalloor outside the protected areas. At Yellappetty, you have to trek to the hills south of the Yellapetty estate.
Some areas of the Mukurthi National Park near Ootty also have the plant. Besides, blooms have been reported from Attappady and Mangaladevi. Flowerings occur at Shevroys in the Eastern Ghats also. The next mass flowering is expected to take place in 2018.
The last few decades witnessed impairment to the habitat of Neelakurinji. Plantations of tea, cardamom and timber devastated stupendous range of pristine forests home to this rare bush. Vast stretches of virgin rain forests got drowned by some Hydro-electric projects. Tea plantations engorged the most of kurinji filled hills. Now the kurinji thrives in the valleys and gorges that remain undistorted.
Another anthropogenic threat witnessed this year is the indiscriminate collection and destruction of bushes and stocks of Neelakurinji by some unaware and unruly visitors. This is particularly noticeable in some of the Nilakurinji habitats around Ooty in the Nilgiris. In the last week of September many tourist were observed to make rampant inside Neelakurinji thickets at Kodanadu in Kotagiri. They were also found to collect bunches of these flowers.
In addition to habitant destruction, such impudent activities may well prove serious threats to this long term survival of this important member of the biodiversity of these mountains.