Monsoon flora of Eravikulam National Park

The main reason to go back to Erivakulam National Park again was to see the flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Kunthiana, in the featured photo), which happens once in 12 years. But this time I remembered to take my macro lens so that I could take a few more photos. I managed to take passable pictures of some of the flowers in the rain. Balancing camera and lens while holding an umbrella and making sure that the optics remains dry was a major challenge though.

I’m able to identify very few flowers down to species level. Some of them I can identify up to genus. Many, especially the small ones, whose flowers lie at the edge of visibility, I could not identify even in my many field guides. Please help out if you are an expert.

The very rare Neelakurinji

The weekend that we spent in Madurai was originally set aside to visit Munnar to watch the rare flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus). Over dinner with old friends we talked about having to cancel the trip to Munnar because of the monsoon flooding of Kerala. One of them suggested that we go to Munnar that weekend since the flood waters had drained away. The Neelakurinji flowers once in twelve years, so this was an attractive proposition. All six of us agreed to take the Friday afternoon off, so that we could fly to Kochi in the evening and drive to Munnar the next morning.

As the designated “naturalist”, I had to brush up on my knowledge of the phenomenon. The Neelakurinji is a grassland flower, as media photos of meadows covered with purple flowers show. But these photos came from earlier flowerings. I was not sure how much damage had been done by this year’s record rain. The genus Strobilanthes has several species which have mast seeding: meaning all bushes flower in synchrony after many years. The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa) flowered in 2016 and will flower again in 2024. The Strobilanthes agasthyamalana is said to flower once in 16 years.

Plants which flower so seldom have to make sure that each flower stands a very high chance of pollination. A study of the 2006 flowering found that the flower was sculptured to increase this efficiency. The mass flowering attracts the Indian honeybee in large numbers (look out for neelakurinji honey later this year). In unfertilized flowers, the receptive surface of the stigma faces the entry path of the bee, and moves away when the bee exits, and the flower remains fresh and produces large amounts of nectar for two days. From the mid-19th century CE there were reports that jungle fowl migrated to flowering meadows to eat the seeds of the plants. This mass migration has not been observed after the removal of forests in the Munnar area.

When we arrived in Eravikulam National Park, the sky was overcast, and the sun, already low near the horizon, was beginning to look decidedly tired of keeping us in light. There were a few flowering bushes, but nothing like the photos and videos which the media were displaying, without telling viewers that they were shot in 2006. The honeybees are most active just before noon, so we didn’t see them at work. It had rained hard since the middle of week, and the rain set in again while we were in the park. We had a sighting of the Nilgiri tahr in a meadow dotted with Neelakurinji. It seemed to avoid the Neelakurinji as it browsed. I wonder whether there are toxins which the plant secretes.

From the point of view of a tourist spectacle, this was a disappointment. As a budding wildflower enthusiast (bad pun, I know) I was happy to have seen this plant which one has so little chance of seeing, since it dies after flowering. I had a good time with my macro lens peering into the two meter high bushes where this flower grows. We later found that there is only one more spot near Munnar where the flowers were visible this year. Because of the extreme rain in August, few bushes flowered, and because of the renewed late rain in September, many flowers were not pollinated. I wonder whether this is a crisis for the species. I guess we will know by 2030, when it is next supposed to flower.

Unseen flowers

This has been a year of canceled trips for me. The latest cancellation is a long-planned trip to Kerala. Once every 12 years there is a mass blooming of the Neelakurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) in the region of Munnar. We had planned to go to see these flowers. Unfortunately this year there was a freak monsoon storm which destroyed roads and parts of Munnar town, flooded large parts of Kerala downriver, and killed many people. I understand that this is possibly the worst monsoon flood in a century.

In this bad time we did not want to cancel our trip in a hurry. Often recovery is helped by providing business. Unfortunately now, with about a week to go for our trip, we are forced to cancel. The flood damage is so heavy that the state government has requested tourists to stay away. Kerala will take time to rebuild and rehabilitate. The state needs help. Here is a link to the main portal where you can offer to help if you wish. I believe that this government portal possibly entails the minimum of administrative overheads, so almost all the donated money will reach those who need help.

Kerala’s new year just passed: Onam. We joined the community in a traditional meal, the Onam Sadhya (featured photo).

The eight year itch

I can’t believe that I wrote a piece saying goodbye to the monsoon on Saturday. On Sunday I was at the Kaas plateau. It rained all morning. The thin layer of soil was saturated with rain. Then other Sunday visitors turned up, and the soil on the road turned to a well-churned slush. The official website says that 3000 people are allowed each day. It seemed to me that there were many more people there on Sunday. People waiting to get into the fenced-off part of the plateau lost their patience. Someone lost their spectacles. I found the featured image.

Karvi in bloom on Kaas plateauThe press has been full of reports about the Topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) blooming this year after a gap of eight years. We found fields full of flowering Topli Karvi (see the photo alongside). But then there were large patches of these knee-high bushes which did not have any flowers. The Family had visited the plateau last year and come back with photos of Topli Karvi flowering in some patches.

Seeing her photos, I’d speculated that Topli Karvi could bloom once in eight years, but different patches could bloom in different years. Then this would not be a textbook case of mast seeding, such as that seen in the related Strobilanthes Kunthiana (Neelakurinji, which is supposed to flower next in 2018), in which the plants die after flowering. Incomplete synchronization of the flowering of some species of Strobilanthes has been reported from Japan, so this is not a radical idea. It would be nice to see data on this species.

View of a path on the Kaas plateau

I did not see any of the usual pollinators. Perhaps it was raining too hard. The previous evening, near the Thosegarh waterfalls I’d seen Indian honeybees in a stand of the related Strobilanthes callosus (Karvi). Dhamorikar has a very interesting observation about the Karvi: it is pollinated by bees, flies, ants, some moths and maybe even the Oriental White-eye. He speculates that the purple colour of the Karvi has evolved to attract a large number of pollinators.

There aren’t that many flowering cycles of Karvi in a lifetime. More than one life may be required to solve the mysteries of the blooming of the Karvi.

Once in a blue bloom

Neelakurinji plant: the flowers bloom next in 2018The highest parts of the Nilgiris are home to the Neelakurinji, which blooms once in twelve years. This simple looking blue flower apparently give the Nilgiris its name. The western ghats are full of Strobilanthes which bloom after many years. The neelakurinji is the Strobilanthes kunthiana, and is expected to flower again in 2018. I may not have seen the flower, but I did see the plant (photo above).Unknown flower on Anamudi

In spite of this, the Eravikulam national park near Munnar is a big draw. We learnt that you are bussed up to a trail where you walk through the forest; no cars are allowed. You park your car in a huge parking lot 14 Kms from Munnar along State Highway 17, and stand in queue for tickets. Alternately, you could pay in town for an option to buy a ticket the next day, and bypass the queue. We did this, and then took the bus up.

We did not expect the treeless open meadow and a climb along the steep metalled road along the flank of Anamudi. It was hot and I was soaked immediately. Fortunately we had enough water to last the 2 Km trek up.Two unknown wildflowers on Anamudi But the wonder was the cars and autos which came down the path. Apparently the road is open to locals, and the Tatas, who own a part of the land above the Sanctuary. The Family couldn’t be bothered at 9 in the morning. Let’s walk, she said.

Unknown flower on Anamudi The path was fenced to prevent walkers from trampling the flowers which grew alongside. Someone had started labelling the plants without much enthusiasm. A patch of neelakurinji was labelled, as was a patch of the white kurinji a few paces on. But a couple of hundred meters on the labels straggled to an end. We were on our own. Although the weather was so warm and humid, technically it is spring, and therefore the flowering season.

Unknown wildflower in AnamudiIt was too warm to bend down to take photos of the really small flowers among the grass. I concentrated on those at roughly eye level. The sanctuary is supposed to have many species of butterflies, some special to the area. I did not see any; perhaps they were all in the bushes we were fenced away from.

We heard many birds in the shrubs behind the fences.Unidentified wildflower on Anamudi I stopped at a particularly tuneful song. Peering through the growth we saw something which I did not recognize. Further on we saw a pied bushchat fly above us and sit on an electric wire. Yes, there were electric wires in this protected forest. Soon after I took the photo above, I saw what the hordes had come here for.

A Nilgiri tahr with paparazziOne of the rarer sights in nearby Valparai was the Nilgiri Tahr. The Eravikulam NP apparently has the largest population of this highly threatened species of mountain sheep. A young one was grazing by the path. As various people tried to take selfies with it in the background it came on to the path. The paparazzi now mobbed the poor kid. As word spread, families ran to take photos. One set of children ran up to touch it. Although the parent didn’t say anything, there was a murmur of disapproval from the crowd.afartahr Those of us who have spent some years doing trips to the wilds, birding, watching wildlife and walking in mountains have learnt from each other how fragile the mountain ecosystems have become. The behaviour of the crowd here showed us that the message about conserving endangered wildlife seems to be slowly sinking into the average Indian tourist as well. There is hope then that the fragile mountain ecosystems may last for our grandchildren to experience.

Whiich is this flower, growing in AnamudiI did not realize that we were almost at the end of our walk. I paused to take a photo of some flowers. The Family was bored with my pace and walked ahead. Without her pacing, I slowed down even more, so that when the next few Tahr appeared near the fence I was the first to see them. I moved away again as the paparazzi gathered.

One more turn, in the road and I came to an open gate.eravikulamflower7 A forest guard was standing nearby warning people that this was the end of the walk. The land beyond it apparently belongs to the Tatas. I wondered whether Tata, or any other company which owns forest land nearby can decide to convert it to plantations. When I asked someone later, I was told that this is not easy any more.

The rolling hills covered with tea plantations are a mockery of the shola forests which once covered these slopes. Even in these little remaining patches, the immense biodiversity is visible to any person who cares to look a little close. I just wish I had some way to find the names of these flowers.