Beautiful, purplish-blue flowers that carpet the hillsides of southern India just once every 12 years are under threat of never blooming again.
The flowering shrubs of Strobilanthes kunthianus have bloomed only 15 times since they were first documented in 1838. The last time they appeared in Kerala state was in 2006, the same year Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was executed, Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet, and Italy won the World Cup.
Now, 12 years later, Neelakurinji or Kurinji, as it’s locally known, once again is appearing in Eravikulam National Park in southern India’s Kerala state—the only place in the world that these particular flowers grow.
“A single flower doesn't matter, but taken together, in a wide area, it's a romantic scene,” says G. Rajkumar, a founder of the Save Kurinji Campaign Council. “When you see it, you fall in love.”
Their historic legacy is enshrined as early as the 1st century in poems of the Tamil Sangam literature. Members of an indigenous tribe in the region, the Muthuvan, refer to their ages by the number of flowerings they have witnessed.
Now mostly confined to Eravikulam’s protected reserve, the shrub and its rare flowerings have disappeared from much of the region. Kurinji was once abundant at 5,000 to 8,500 feet in the Western Ghats mountain range, a hotspot of biological diversity in India’s southwest. But a triple threat—plantations of eucalyptus and acacia, agriculture, and most recently, tourism—has stripped the grasslands in which Kurinji grows.
The evolution and survival of Strobilanthes are intricately tied to its mountain home.
“Neelakurinji's mass blooming is a kind of reproductive mega big bang,” says Jomy Augustine, head of the botany department at St. Thomas College in Palai, Kerala. “It spends all its energy for the success of flowering and fruiting. If anything happens to the ecology of the Western Ghats, it affects reproduction and thereby the future of Strobilanthes diversity.”
Augustine recently published a book on the 64 species of Strobilanthes in the Western Ghats. In addition to Kurinji 20 other species are blooming this year, presenting flowers in shades from white to a lavender blue to a deep brown. All make their home in hilly grasslands.
The loss of this habitat is stark. A study published in January looked at satellite imagery in one part of the Western Ghats from the past 40 years and found that grasslands shrank 66 percent. At the same time there was a 12-fold increase in timber plantations. From being the dominant terrain, grasslands became rare and fragmented.
“The big surprise was how recently this change had taken place,” says co-author Milind Bunyan of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology. “The biggest change was in 1993 to 2003. In ecological terms, that's like yesterday.”
Guarding the Flowers
Kodaikanal, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, hosted a two-day gathering earlier this summer to raise awareness about the loss of Neelakurinji and its habitat, and to urge state governments to establish and preserve more national parkland.
N. Anand Kumar, an officer with the Tamil Nadu forest department, remembers a recent time he came upon Strobilanthes kunthianus. After a leopard sighting in January 2018, he and his colleagues trekked for an hour, looking for pug marks. Deep into the forest, they came upon 20 shrubs of blooming kurinji.
“We were so surprised, it almost felt like we had discovered the plant for the first time,” says Kumar.
Rajkumar of the Save Kurinji Campaign Council still believes there is a chance for the purplish-blue flowers to bring the hills alive again; the first step is to stop all commercial activity in the region.
“If we give time to heal, nature will come back and the habitat will restore itself,” he said. “Neelakurinji is safe in the national parks. But only the affluent can visit them. It should be seen by everybody.”