The Fischer Herbarium painstakingly preserves flora specimens from the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats from over a century ago

A walk through the 100-year-old Fischer Herbarium at the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding is a brush with history. Portraits of forest officers C.E.C. Fischer, T.F. Bourdillon and M. Rama Rao adorn the walls of the Herbarium that had its beginning in the year 1911. Rows of sturdy wooden cupboards filled with stiff sheets of paper hold a wealth of information on the plants of the Western Ghats. Every single sheet has a plant specimen, preserved, stored, catalogued, and arranged systematically. Each plant specimen has accompanying information about its botanical name, where it was found, when it flowers and what it looks like. The herbarium, referred by the acronym FRC (Forest Research Centre), is recognised by the Royal Botanical Gardens of U.K. and serves as reference centre for taxonomists, scientists, naturalists, botanists, and students.

It has been named after Cecil Ernest Claude Fischer, who served as the Conservator of Forests in Coimbatore (1915 to 1917), for his extensive collection from the Western Ghats, and also the Seshachalam Hills and Ganjam district of Andhra. “After his stint, he went back to the U.K. and then returned as a botanist to explore the Western Ghats. He was fascinated by the flora here,” says S.P. Subramani, in-charge of the Herbarium.

A simple technique of pressing plants between sheets of paper, and drying them, brings forth the characteristics of living plants. “It is important to collect a plant with its reproductive characteristics (presence of flowers or fruits is compulsory). We dip the dried sheet in ethanol solution, a process called poisoning to keep pests and fungus at bay,” he explains.

A herbarium documents a plant species, and also helps to study the extent of its distribution. For instance, a climber species, Clematis, has been recorded by C.E. C. Fischer in 1907 at an altitude of 5,400 ft in Coimbatore North, and another forester Lawson has collected it at 3000 ft from the Wayand Hills. There are specimens from Attapadi, and Anaimalai Hills too, collected at various altitudes. A researcher can revisit the places to record the status of the species now.

There are collections made by P.F. Fyson from the hill tops of the Nilgiris and Palani, besides contributions by K.R. Sasidharan, N. Venkatasubramaniam, Mahendran, Kalyani, and Somasundaram. Dr. C. Kunhi Kannan, head of bio-diversity, recalls the contributions of Dr. K.N. Subramaniam and says: “We have over 100 endangered species, besides many endemic and rare and threatened plant species of the Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats as well as Mangrove Forests. The oldest herbarium is that of Ranunuculus muricatus collected by J.R. Drummond in 1879 from Punjab.”

There is an extensive collection of orchids. Some of them, such as oberonia iridifolia was collected at 2600 ft at Anaimalai Hills (1912) and at 7000 ft in the Nilgiris (1911). A ground orchid with pale violet flowers has been recorded by foresters in Masinagudi (1963), Tenmalai in Kerala (1961), and Kottur, Trivandrum (1979). The newer additions are from 1985 onwards. Subramani says anyone can contribute to the herbarium. “PhD students visit regularly for reference. Sometimes they come with the specimen of a plant and we help them identify it. Herbarium are a relevant resource centre for studies taken up by Conservation Assessment Management Prioritisation (CAMP) where they evaluate the statue of plants and classify plants as endangered or abundant based on the population status,” says Subramani.

Dr. N. Krishna Kumar, director of IFGTB, says there are plans to digitise the collection soon.

“We have over 3,000 recorded species of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats. We want to increase it to 11,000. The plants were collected through expeditions into the forests. Nowadays, youngsters don’t want to go into the forest. We want to set up Nature Clubs and develop an interest in forestry among students. Every day, new plants are spotted in the wild. With the presence of the Botanical Garden, the Gass Forest Museum and the Fischer Herbarium, we want to promote botanical tourism,” he says.

Total plant specimens 23,228

Flowering plants Over 3,000 species

Non-flowering plants 160 species

Rare and endangered 100

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