Monday, May 9, 2011

The vanishing wildflowers

Wild Flowers

The vanishing wildflowers
-  by Nandkumar Kamat

As you drive in Goa's countryside (and actually anywhere in the Western Ghats, along NH-17A and NH-4A) you would not fail to notice the plateaus, the hill slopes, the valleys covered by wildflowers. To the serious students of natural history and amateur wildflower watchers - Issac Kihimkars, “Common wild flowers” (2000) and Shrikant Ingalhallikar's,” Flowers of Sahyadri” (2001) are indispensable field guides.

Why should we be interested in wildflowers? Firstly, these species represent an important wild genetic resource-priceless biological wealth. Secondly, many of these are medicinal and only a few are cultivated. Thirdly, there is a serious and still ill understood ecological and biological dimension-the wildflowers support the food web. The insect and bird pollinators depend on certain species of wildflowers. Fourthly, there is an economic and biotechnological dimension - wildflowers could be a rich bank of biopharmaceuticals and pigments. Fifthly, there is cultural and ecotourism dimension - the wildflowers generate curiosity, awe, wonder and inspire creativity.
What daffodils were to the British poet Wordsworth, the wildflowers of Goa were to the first modern Goan Konkani poet - Bayabhav. His poetry collection was titled-Sadyavelim fulam, (wildflowers on a plateau).
Goan painters and artists appreciate Vincent van Gaugh and Paul Gaugin-but seem to have generally neglected the beauty of wildflowers in their own neighbourhood. Wildflowers of Goa, about 100 species have not yet entered into any serious environmental discourse. Their natural wild habitats have been taken over by settlements and industries.

How old are Goa's wildflowers? The flowering plants are 135 million years old. They flourished 70 million years ago. The Western Ghats are 45 million years old. The plateaus of Goa may be much more ancient. So, the endemic wildflowers are at least 70 million years old. Do you know what this means? When a fertile wildflower habitat in your neighbourhood is destroyed the gene pool with its evolutionary history of 70 million years also vanishes. Of course, there is a school of thought which feels that it is not necessary to conserve the wildflower habitats in small patches anywhere. These people believe that if a good patch of wildflowers in the Western Ghats (Kas plateau near Satara) is conserved then we need not worry about other local habitats. Unfortunately this is not the policy in USA and the European Union countries which respect their wildlife flora in all the regions and states. In India only the valley of flowers has been accorded the conservation status.

But, what about Goa's plateaus and valleys of wildflowers? Would anyone care for these habitats? One of the well known wildflower habitat is the Bambolim-Taleigao-Dona-Paula plateau. The best season to observe and photograph the succession of wildflowers is between July to September. What you find on this plateau? Here is a list for your reference. Many of these species are common on other plateaus of Goa as well. There are species of Cleomaceae-the spiderflowers-Whiskered spider flower-Cleome gynandra, Common spider flower-cleome rutidosperma, and Yellow spider flower- Cleome viscose.

I always wonder about the history of domestication of the common ladies finger and why farmers who used to cultivate it on this plateau reported bumper crops? The reason is that the plateau has a gene pool of wild ladies finger well adapted to the soil and climate. The members of Malvaceae are well represented -- we have wild ladies finger-jungli bhendi and ran bhendi, or Abelmoschus manihot ssp Tetraphyllus, we also see Country mallow-abutilon indicum, locally known as petari- the buttons of this flower are dipped in colour to make designs. Other wildflower species include the - Common mallow or Azanza lampas, grape leaved mallow or Kosteletzksya vitifolia (van kapus), Brazul jute or Malachra capitata, angled sida-or Sida rhombifolia, common burbush-Triumfetta rhomboidea, Mysore linseed-Tribulus terrestris, Little tree plant-Biophytum sensitivum, Common balsam-Impatiens balsamia, Rosemarine hill balsam-Impatiens rosmarinifolia, crab eyed creeper-Abrus precatorius- or Gunj, common swordbean- Canavalia gladiata, Bombay bean-Clitoria annua, Butterfly bean-Clitoria ternatea, creeping hemp-Crotalaria filipes, greater rattle rod- Crotalaria leschenaultii, common rattle rod-Crotalaria retusa, common psoralea- Callen corylifolia, Indian sweet pea-Vigna vexillata, Candle cassia-Cassia alata, pot cassia-Cassi torra-( Taklo-used as vegetable at tender stage), Flaming spike climber-Moullava spicata-or Wagatea spicata-(waghati-very good for making dry flowers), touch me not-Mimosa pudica, wild musk melon-Curcumis melo, Spiny melon-Curcumis prophetarum-(without which Dipavali cannot be celebrated), Bristle gourd-Momordica dioica, Madras pea pumpkin-Mukia maderaspatana, Common frineged flower vine Trichosanthes curcumerina, Great fringed flower vine-Trichosanthes tricuspidata, beautiful Mexican foss flower Ageratum houstonianum-( native of Peru and Mexico), purple heads-Phyllocephalum scabridum(excellent species for domestication), Graham's
groundsel-Selecio grahami (you can see vast carpets of these on hill slopes-Tivim, Sirsaim ,and on Assagao-Siolim plateau), blue dawn glory-Ipomea nil, Tiger s paw glory-Ipomoea pes-tigridis, little gooseberry-Physalis minima, oriental sesame-Sesamum orientale, Hairy creat Indonesiella echioides, Common small justicia-Justicia procumbens-July, Blue fountain bush-Clerodendrum serratum-( the flowers mimic the butterfly), Hill clerodendrum-Clerodendrum viscosum, Silver spiked cockscomb -Celosia argentea ( nice for flower arrangements), hill turmeric-Curcuma pseudomontana- (blooms only in June, medicinal), Glory lily-Gloriosa superba- ( a beautiful colourful flower with good shelf life, known as agnishikha, Vaghache chopke, kalalavi, the tubers have an anti-cancer drug-Colchicin).

There are plentiful of flowering tubers like the Dragon stalk yalm-Amorphophyllus commutatus, taro-Colocasia esculenta. The wildflower species include the relatives of domesticated cucurbits-and these may harbour interesting antiviral, fire and drought resistant genes.
There are other interesting species which come up in wet places-near seasonal ponds. These include the bead grass-Ericaulon sedwickii and the insect trapping Utricularia reticulata. A mosaic of white and purple colours would be found these days on Donapaula plateau. This is an association of Ericaulon and Utricularia.

Very little is known about such wildflower associations. It is an ecological mystery of nature which may never be elucidated in Goa because at least near the urban and industrial centers the future of the remaining natural habitats of wildflowers is uncertain. Within next few years one would have to travel deeper into the countryside to experience the beauty of the wildflowers.

I have found it difficult to convince the Goa University authorities about the long term genetic, ecological and biological importance of preserving, protecting and in-situ conserving the wildflower biodiversity of our campus. Practically this means, creating mini-wildflower reserves-small patches all over the campus and maintain them in pristine conditions. But these species have few friends and are condemned to vanish in a few years.

No comments:

Post a Comment