This man from Pala has a new species of Neelakurinji named after him

AK Pradeep

They say that if your love for something is so deep and intense, it could even transform you into the object of your passion, or you could metamorphose into it. If that be true, Ramapuram-Pala native AK Pradeep is already one such object-a flower, a Neelakurinji at that, a deeply mysterious and enticing floral species.

Strobilanthes kunthiana or the Neelakurinji blooms once in 12 years. They are purplish-blue and bloom like a million stars on the slopes of the shola forests of the Western Ghats.

Coming back to Pradeep, so deep was his love for the flower that he began living with it. Today, his passion has borne fruit. It’s no small wonder then that the international scientific journal, Phytotaxa, dealing with all aspects of botany, named a new species of Neelakurinji after kurinji- whisperer Pradeep, thereby honoring the man who discovered a new family of blossoms.

Strobilanthes pradeepiana
Welcome to 'Strobilanthes pradeepiana'! The latest edition of the journal mentions a new species of the flower that’s been found in the Munnar hills and the credit of tracing the new blossoms goes to our man in Pala.

Pradeep’s story begins in 2004. He had just completed a course in ITI and a program in photography. That was the year when a “mini” kurinji season opened up in Munnar. It so happened that Pradeep and his camera made quite an impression on the then wildlife warden, Roy P Thomas (the present election commissioner of Puducherry). Thomas immediately saw the potential in the young boy's photography.

Their common topic of interest naturally veered round the kurinji. It was quite clear that not much research or any serious study had been made into the history or origin of this plant species, except for what had been recorded by foreign scientists. The forest department was all geared up to welcome the flowering of the kurinji. The warden threw Pradeep a challenge to make use of this rare opportunity to document details of all the plants and their flowers on behalf of the forest department.They also extended all help and even opened up the cross bars at the check post for Pradeep so he could walk in to the reserve whenever he wanted.

A commitment begins
At this juncture, the department got wind of the news that white bisons were sighted in the wilds of Chinnar. However, there was no evidence to prove the truth behind the sighting. Pradeep went on their trail, spending months in the dense forests for a picture of the elusive animal. His wait was worth all the trouble as the pictures he finally clicked won kudos for the Forest Department.

Neelakurinji | Photo: Shutterstock Images

The year 2006 was a momentous one. The forest turned into an ocean of blue with kurinji blossoms. Pradeep’s camera knew no rest as he ran all over the place clicking as many pictures as he could for the department. Within a span of three to four months, he had documented almost all the flowers. Though all the blooms looked alike, to his nuanced eye, there were subtle differences in floral patterns. Though blue was the common factor, there were dissimilarities among the same plant varieties. Unfortunately, there existed no scientific theory to unravel the mystery behind this rare “blooming” phenomenon.

On to the Neelakurinji trail
Pradeep decided to pursue a course of study. He learned how to preserve the plants from researcher Sr Sandra. He was then introduced to Rev S.John Britto of St Joseph’s College, Thiruchirapilli, a researcher who owned a herbarium in Kodaikanal. Pradeep soon found himself bound to Thiruchirapilli with a wide collection of kurinji photos and a variety of plant specimens.

Once the season in Munnar was over, Pradeep decided to go all the way to Tapti in Gujarat where the Western Ghats tapered and from there cross over to the Agasthya mountain ranges in Ponmudi to photograph and document various kurinji species along the ranges.

So far, there were only unconfirmed reports that of the 450 kurinji species the world over, 150 were in India. This was proved true by Pradeep’s painstaking study. He now had a massive collection of plants. Out of the 150, 70 of the species were found to grow only in the Western Ghats, 37 only in Kerala and 20 only in Munnar.

Pradeep’s offbeat research soon got him acquainted with Dr Bins Mani, professor of botany at St Thomas College, Pala and Sr Dr Sinchumol Thomas, professor in the department of botany, Carmel College, Mala. The trio worked in tandem. The researchers would study, record and categorise each and every species Pradeep brought in from their natural habitat. Deeper studies were made into each floral pattern through the precise eye of the electronic microscope of the Cochin University.

Unpredictable flowering
By 2018, there were tell tale signs of another kurinji season and folks expecting another ocean of blue on the mountain slopes rushed in to witness Nature’s bounty. Lensmen, tourists and others made a beeline to Munnar. Pradeep too chipped in by bringing out a field guide on behalf of the Forest Department. He had catalogued 20 different varieties for visitors to identify. The shutterbug was active once again. But this time round, what visitors saw were bunches of lifeless and lusterless plants and flowers.

Though the general mood was one of disinterest, Pradeep realized something was amiss. He had been witnessing the blooming patters of two consecutive seasons. He recalled how the Tamil Nadu’s Forest Department had sought his help in reviving the flowers. Where more than a 1000 flowers had bloomed in Ootty’s Doddabeta the previous season, there were just about 3 of them left there the next season. The department wondered whether land could be fertilized with organic manure in a bid to save and preserve the kurinji wealth.

Munnar going the Ooty way?
Now for a bit of history. The picturesque Ootty saw its worst phase of development in the 17th century when the British brought in their unconventional farming styles and destroyed the land in their bid to bring in urban living. The land was stripped of its natural blessings and it was even forgotten that the Nilgiri hills had got its name from the blue of the Neelakurinji.

Pradeep saw the unmistakable traces of Ootty’s destruction in Munnar too. Urbanisation was taking a toll of the natural beauty of the place. With Munnar’s famed mist and cold slowing beating a retreat, the place was turning warm and humid. Was Munnar doing an Ootty, was the question that bothered Pradeep.

AK Pradeep

Pradeep’s inferences were an eye-opener. Scientists and naturalists saw climate change playing villain in the kurinji’s blooming pattern. The changes were perceptible in all of Pradeep’s pictures.

By 2030 when the next season comes in, it will have sealed the fate of the precious blooms. The Neelakurinji is not just a pretty flower, it also happens to be an indicator of climate change. As the Ghats region received copious rainfall this year, a lot of kurinji flowers bloomed much ahead of the August season.

Invasive plants like the kongini, bracken fern and weeds and single plantations of wattle, pine and eucalyptus are a threat to the kurinji just as they have been to evergreen forests.

A mystery called the Neelakurinji
Research into the Neelakurinji calls for a great deal of patience as the plants flower only once in 8 or 12 years, collectively. The phenomenon is called “gregarious flowering” in botanical terms. There have been times when the flowering has gone unpredictably haywire.

An adult human, if he or she is lucky, can succeed in chronicling the flowering process of just about four or five seasons. It’s sad that many a time even forest officers despite their commitment to preserving the flowers don’t get a chance to witness this flowering phenomenon. Researchers into the kurinji feature are also a frustrated lot. Their much awaited PhDs may take years to materialize.

But Pradeep is neither a botanist nor research scholar. The only truth he knows is his deep passion for the flower and a deeper commitment to studying and documenting it in its minutest detail and his quest for unknown kurinji species. It stands to his credit that several researchers have published close to nine papers in scientific journals co-authored with this doctorate-less commoner-scientist. Two more papers are all set to be out soon.

From the Eastern to the Western Ghats
It was Pradeep who showed the world that there were hitherto unseen varieties of kurinjis out there along the Eastern Ghats belt in Yercaud, Kollimalai and Yelagiri. He chalked out a national kurinji map with the help of the local population, hill tribals and Adivasis who knew all about the flowering seasons and life pattern of the kurinji.

Perhaps only Pradeep knows when exactly the flowers along the ranges of Valparai , Kudajathri, Lonavala, Nilgiris and Matheran bloom. Whenever anything out of the usual pops up, the local folks alert him. Some even send him pictures. On getting the alerts he heads to those places accompanied by friends. His camera then goes into action mode. To this day, he’s not had any encounters of the wild animal kind, says Pradeep who hopes for a near complete documentation of India’s entire kurinji species by 2024.

Meanwhile, he’s received an invitation from researcher Niladri Rajapaksa, a close relation of the Sri Lankan President. Pradeep hopes to use this chance to learn all about the Lankan variety of kurinjis and to find whether they can be linked to our native species. He has the support of Dr Santhosh Kumar from the Botanical Garden in Palode in the forthcoming venture.

A cycle of birth and death
The Neelakurinji’s flowering periodicity varies between 12, 10 and 8years. Pradeep’s list has kurinjis that refuse to bloom even after 14 years. The flowers open up by around 9 in the morning, stay fresh the whole day and begin to wither the next morning with all the petals dropping down. In three months, even the parent plant will have disappeared. It’s a mystery how a plant takes 12 years to grow, bloom and then last for just two days, just to see the cycle being repeated after a 12 long years.

The kurinji is as good a phenomenon as the bamboo that flowers only once in 25 years, which spells doom for it. Once it flowers, its dateline with time is set. It’s like a cycle of birth and death. The babies are born to see the mother die. Once the seeds are formed, they automatically inject into the maternal plant a toxic enzyme that slowly kills the mother plant. The minute the seeds are mature, they break their pods and burst out. The seeds get scattered around even as the mother plant dies. This signals the end of the kurinji season.

Once the season is in, it’s difficult to move around without shooing away the bees and beetles that swarm around the plants. It’s also the time when rats, wild hens and birds breed by the dozen. However, though countless seeds get strewn around, only about two plants come up in an area of one sq metre. Looks like the kurinji has a proper population plan in place.

Family support
Pradeep’s support bank is his family, wife Ramya, kids Abhinav, Adarsh and Akarsh.

The 46-year-old Pradeep, son of Krishnapilla and Bhavaniamma, is an ace at kalari too. He runs a unique engineering venture called WWI Innovative Solutions India, which is into providing agri tools with which one can take on environmental hazards and successfully encounter changes made by climatic conditions. The implements he invents include specific tools to pull up wild weeds and replace them with environment-compatible plants and loops and tongs to ensnare and hook snakes, all made with aid from UNDP.

A mystery called Neelakurinji
Where can one see the flowers? The Strobilanthes kunthianus or the Neelakurinji is spread along mountain slopes that lie 1,500 feet above sea level between vast shola forests and undulating grasslands that coexist under a moderate tropical climate. They have to grow freely and will not survive man-made attempts to raise them in a structured environment.

There exist several varieties of the species like Strobilanthes homotropus, gracilis, andersonii, foliosis and neo asper, to name a few. They consider themselves separate entities and create their own living space and growing conditions. They thus choose their own seasons, soil and altitude wherein they thrive.

The plant took its botanical name kunthianus from Prof Karl Kuntz of Berlin University.

Several local folks have also lent their names to the plant. The “Kannani” variety of kurinji is named after Forest Department watcher and nature lover Kannan. Others on the list are Benthami, Losony, Jomiyai and Veerendrakumara after whom several other varieties are named! The latest link in the chain happens to pradeepiyana, after our own Pradeep from Pala.

Endemism is the main characteristic of the kurinji. It sticks to a single geographic region and any attempt to raise it elsewhere will not see success. Kurinjis never exchange locations. The species seen in one area cannot be found in another. This is precisely what makes the kurinji hills a storehouse of organic wealth.

It’s strange, but true. There are very narrow endemic strips of the plants that line up the forest fringes, say numbering about a 1000. These endemic species can never be found anywhere else in the world, which means only these 1000 plants exist on this planet.

The Strobilanthes andersonii is one such species which has been spotted only in Eravikulam. The Strobilanthes agasthyamalena is another variety found only on the Agasthya hills. The Pradeepiya is also a narrow endemic variety. However, cross pollination is witnessing a change and even a differentiation in the species, says Pradeep. He has spotted totally different species of the kurinji in the fine sandy soil of Vaikom and the bramble forests of Tamil Nadu.

Different varieties of the same species have been found in Bodimet, Mathikettan, Pooppara, Pampa and Sabarimala. If by any chance the tip of the plants gets eaten away by deer or bison, they never get to complete their life cycle. It’s these species of kurinjis that flower every year. Such plants thrive even in smaller altitudes. Varieties like the “karinkurinji” are used in the making of medicinal potions.

There are references to the kurinji in the Sangha dynasty records. It’s the white and blue varieties that bloom in abundance in the Western Ghats.

Pradeep’s herbarium houses thousands of photos where he also has a huge collection of dried leaves and flowers. The new species pradeepiyana is preserved in the Rappinart herbarium of St Joseph’s College Thiruchirappilly. Incidentally, Fr Dr K.M.Mathew who set up the herbarium is also from Ramapuram in Pala.

Lab dissection of kurinji corolla in a bid to trace honey storage within has yielded no results. Not a drop could be traced. However, it’s been found that in their bid to attract bees who aid in fertilization, the flowers hide just the right quantity of honey inside them. Bees with their tiny limbs make small balls from the pollen and fly with them to their hives. Tribal elders Kolunthappan and Chinna Annan vouch for the fact that honey yield more than doubles during the years the kurinjis bloom and the honey thus got is of the finest quality.

The plants seldom grow beyond four feet as the strong winds that blow from across the mountains restrict their growth. On the contrary, in places like Mathikettan where the plants grow unhindered by the wind, they reach a height of up to 7 ft. This hardy variety can even resist forest fires.

Kurinjis have been spotted in the North-eastern states of Meghalaya and Sikkim. There are about 450 varieties of kurinjis in tropic and sub tropic countries like Indonesia, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Vietnam.

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