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Rare balsams in the hills

IT WAS a cold and foggy October morning - the monsoon had revived suddenly, putting a damper on our plans. We were in the Mukurti National Park of the Upper Nilgiri Plateau, making another effort at locating those mysterious balsams that are restricted to a few patches in these remote areas. Many of these have not been located for half a century, and some could well have become extinct. Our search finally paid off - stunningly handsome flowers were spotted in a remote shola forest on moss covered branches. Later, from descriptions by early British botanists (no illustrations could be obtained), we provisionally identified this to be a highly rare and endemic balsam called Impatiens lawsonii. The other balsam being searched for, Impatiens neo- barnesi remained elusive.

The genus - Impatiens - the true balsams, have some of the most fascinating wild flowers. There are over 400 species world wide. However, their distribution is local, with North America and Europe having only three species. Australia and South America can boast of none. Therefore, this is essentially a genus of the old world tropics. The Indian subcontinent has over half the total number of worldwide species, but here too, the distribution is local. The two main zones here are the North-Western Himalayas and the Western Ghats. Botanically, there are two main groupings here - those that have short, swollen spindle shaped pods seen in the Western Ghats and the other that have long and narrow pods - seen in the north west Himalayas. Many are locally endemic and restricted to small areas. New species may have arisen in isolated areas where there was no chance of mixing with the main stock. The process took many millions of years for these new delicate species to appear. Charles Darwin too noted a similar confinement of floral species to the Galapagos islands.

The genus name Impatiens derives from the fact that the ripe fruit pods have a tendency to curl up inwards and do so quite violently, that the seeds are ejected some distance away. This can be clearly observed by slightly pressing a ripe fruit pod. Hence they are indeed "impatient" to throw their seed forth. The seeds are often ejected several feet away. There are usually three sepals of which two are green and small, while the other is of the same colour as the petals and in most cases prolonged downwards to varying lengths as a distinct spur. There are also three petals of which one is standard and is situated outside the others in bud and located exactly on the side opposite the spur. The other two petals are called wings that hang downwards and each of these has a slit dividing it into two lobes. These wings in some species called "Orchid Balsams" hang down very distinctly over the lip of the spurred sepal thus giving a strong resemblance to the labellum of an orchid.

The Nilgiri Hills are home to nearly 40 species of amazingly beautiful and delicate balsams. A dozen of these are endemic and found nowhere else on earth. The person who first collected and described many of the Nilgiri species was Dr. R.Wight, from 1820 onwards. He was succeeded by Mrs.Jerdon, Col. Beddome, Barnes, Lawson and the great Botanist Sir J. D. Hooker who wrote An Epitome Of The Indian Species Of Impatiens In 1904.

Unfortunately, despite a lot of botanical work being done in the Nilgiris, many of the rare and endemic balsams have remained unsurveyed since independence. The plantations of eucalyptus and wattle on the grasslands have pushed many of these balsams to the brink of extinction. Our surveys over the past few years have led to the re-discovery of some of these balsams that are now found only in tiny refugial pockets in remote Nilgiri highlands. Some of the very rare and endemic Nilgiri balsams sighted recently are Impatiens: nilagirica, orchioides, lawsonii, laticornis, tenella, rufescens and levingei. G.P.S. readings of the rare balsams have been taken so that these areas could be protected. In South India, as many as 24 balsam species are endemic. It is possible that there are still some undescribed species awaiting discovery.

Although it is difficult to cultivate such delicate species, efforts at cultivation have now started to pay off by simulating near natural conditions and stimuli like hoar frost that the often minute seeds need to germinate. Hopefully, it might soon be possible with the help of the Forest department to re-introduce these in erstwhile areas. Cultivation of the stunningly attractive wild balsams in house gardens and nurseries could be tried ideally by persons living in the environs where wild ones exist naturally. But care is to be taken to simulate natural conditions if these are to flower successfully. For this, observation of the balsams in their natural habitat is essential. And remember that many of these have a long period of dormancy followed by a short period of flowering. Some of the Nilgiri balsams that could be cultivated in hill stations are leschenaultii, chinensis, latifolia, cuspidata and fruticosa, besides the rare and delicate endemics mentioned earlier.

But for those who have not seen wild balsams flowering in profusion by the thousands soon after the cessation of the south west monsoon, please do so at the next opportunity.

However, if care and efforts are not taken, it might not be long before some of the Nilgiri endemics become totally extinct. The Toda tribals of the Nilgiris have several legends and songs about these flowers that are called "nawtty" by them. The main ways of saving these blooms is by increasing the size of the protected area and also by removing in a phased manner, the vast tracts of exotic trees planted solely for commercial interest.

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