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In pursuit of Sita's flower

At 82, when most of us grumble about our aches and pains, T. Ananda Rao prefers to talk about his beloved orchids.

"DO YOU know this story from the Ramayana? Once, Sita wanted to adorn her hair with a flower. Poor Rama, where could he find a beautiful flower in the godforsaken forest? Nevertheless, Rama set out on a search. Soon, he came across a beautiful bunch of tiny flowers, clustered so closely that there was no need for them to be threaded together. It was not a flower but an orchid! For botanists, it is Rhynchostylis retusa, but for the common man, it is Sitale or Sita-dande!"

The orchid man, T. Ananda Rao, does not tire of telling such stories. He is a veritable treasurehouse of eco-information. Born in Bangalore in 1920, he obtained a Masters degree in Botanical Sciences at the Central College in 1944, and a Ph.D. from Mysore University in 1955 before embarking on a distinguished career which included stints at the prestigious Royal Institute of Science, Bombay, Gujarat College, Ahmedabad, the Botanical Survey of India, Calcutta (25 years), and Bangalore University (as a UGC scientist).

Since his retirement in 1978, Dr. Rao is actively engaged in environmental and ecological projects. Author of several books and research papers, he has led a number of eco-projects and environmental impact assessment studies of international standards in Karnataka. Currently, he is an ecologist-researcher-scientist-documenter-writer all rolled into one at the Karnataka Association for the Advancement of Science, Central College, Bangalore.

Among the many interests and projects he holds dear to his heart is the one on orchids and mangroves. According to him, in Karnataka there are three hotspots for the orchid-researcher — Kodagu, Kudremukh, and Dandeli. These hotspots house as many as 175 orchid species, and he has collected no less than 140 of them.

So what is an orchid? "Orchid is a collective term for a set of flowers. They are truly the Nature's gift to our forests. They enliven the environs with their beauty, colour, and aroma. Unlike common perception, an orchid is never a parasite, although it grows on other shrubs and trees. They have a great ability to survive and grow on biological wastes (saprophytes) and often feed themselves just by sucking moisture from the air (epiphytes). You can also grow orchids in your backyard. And if you want my help, I will come to your place and set up things. And I will not charge a paisa!"

It is impossible to remain untouched by this sprightly octogenarian's enthusiasm and missionary zeal. "Awareness of orchids is poor among the common people," he laments. "Rama might have pleased Sita by bringing her an orchid. But try taking one to a Sathya-narayana Pooja to your friend's house — you will risk being thrown out! People are used to traditional flowers like mallige, sampige, shevanthige, and so on, but not orchids, even if they are beautiful, scented, and colourful."

Dr. Rao has another complaint. "Unlike in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, there is no State-level orchidarium in Karnataka. I have set up orchidaria at Bannerghatta, Dandeli, Kushalnagar, and Kudremukh. But these mainly house the locally available species. We still need a State-level orchid-arium."

He has some advice for the small tribe of orchid enthusiasts in the City. "Over-kindness will kill the plant. Do not water them excessively. Most require a mere sprinkling of water, and that too just once a week." As for those who complain about non-flowering of plants: "Use distilled water!" thunders Dr. Rao. "Not tap water. Chlorinated water kills their reproductive and flowering abilities. Groundwater is all right, but tap water is a big no-no." The next clarification relates to the colour of orchids: "If you bring an orchid, for instance, from the forests of Kodagu and grow it here in Bangalore, there is bound to be a difference in colour. There will always be an added luminosity to orchids in the hills and forests." Another factor is their location. "You can grow orchids in Bangalore, provided they are plucked from a height of say 2,000 to 3,000 ft. If you bring an orchid from a higher forest, say 4,000 ft. and above, it simply will not survive in Bangalore."

This living encyclopaedia on orchids says: "Hybridisation is very easy in orchids compared to other plants and flowers. There are more than 40,000 hybrids, thanks to their supreme compatibility." Warming to the subject, he effortlessly reels out their botanical names, detailing their habitat and special characteristics. He has his favourites too. Being a mannina maga, they are the native species of Bulbophyllum mysoreense and Eria mysorensis. Other pets Luisia macrantha, whose dynamic features resemble the limbs of a Kathakali dancer, Bulbophyllum fimbriatum with their colourful umbrella-like petals, and Pholidota pallida, whose closely knit tiny flowers resemble a well-crafted golden chain. And of course, the Sitale!

How does he find the inspiration and energy to trek in difficult terrain in search of his beloved orchids? He lost his wife in 1992, and found solace in his botanical passion. Quite naively I ask him how he manages to climb those tall trees to pluck the orchids. "My dear friend, if you think all the orchids are Anand Rao's collection, you are mistaken. They are, in fact, Hanumantha Rao's collection!" Smiling at my confusion, he reveals how a trained monkey is employed instead. His simian scientific assistant, from Kolar, invariably accompanies him during his orchid hunt. Dr. Rao has perfected the art of cajoling his `ancestral' friend (banana is always a good bribe!) to shimmy up to the tip of the tallest of trees and throw to him those tantalising orchids.

"So, you came to talk about orchids and I have got you into my own Ramayana," smiles Dr. Rao, "Rama, Sita, and now even the great Hanuman included!"

For any information on orchids, Dr. Rao can be contacted at Karnataka Association for the Advancement of Science, Central College, Phone: 2217658 (O) 6572079 (R).


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