Once draping the hills in sheets of purplish blue, much of its habitat is now lost to plantations
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Sangham poets sang about its flowers and nectar. Tribals reckoned time by its flowering cycles. The Nilgiris got its name from its purplish blue flowers that bloomed abundantly all over the shola grasslands.
The Neelakurinji (Strobilanthus Kunthiana) would be flowering again across the mountain ranges this September, after 12 years. But, you will not see them spread across miles of mountain slopes. For, much of its habitat has been lost to plantations.
Neelakurinji belongs to a family of around 300 species with flowering cycles ranging from one to 16 years. At least 46 of these can be found in India.
With a flowering cycle of 12 years, Neelakurinji is the best known among them. Growing abundantly in the shola grasslands of the Western Ghats above 1800 metres, they used to cover the mountain slopes like a blue carpet once in 12 years.
Explorers like P. K. Uthaman and G. Rajkumar recall having seen the hills between Klavarai in Tamil Nadu and Vattavada in Kerala draped in sheets of delicate purplish blue in 1982. Today, pine, eucalyptus and wattle plantations cover these areas. One could only find patches of kurinji waiting to bloom this season between the plantations. However, some areas in the Eravikulam National Park and the remaining shola grasslands on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border remain intact.
But of bigger consequence is the loss of shola forests. They harbour a wide variety of species, many of them native to the Western Ghats and the source of several rivers flowing into Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The Government declared some sholas, such as Pambadum Shola and Mannavan Shola, as national parks in 2003. However, contiguity of the protected areas is yet to be achieved.
Concerned by the declining habitat of kurinji and other important shola species, the Malabar Natural History Society, Group Endeavour for Environment and Nature Sustenance (Greens, Secretariat, Thiruvananthapuram) and Malappuram Chapter of the Youth Hostels Association of India are planning a campaign sometime in April or May.