K.P.M. Basheer

The latest instance in the 12-yearly flowering cycle is a big draw

MUNNAR: A little, mauve flower with no particular charm or fragrance is drawing hordes of visitors to some of south India's leading hill resorts this season. Tourists are flocking to the mountain folds and hillsides of Munnar, Kodaikanal and Ooty to have a look at this ordinary-looking shrub flower, which however has its own set of legends, myths and superstitions attached to it. Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) blooms once in 12 years and the plant dies the following year.

Though the individual flower is no stunner, the vast tracts of hillsides awash with the mass-flowering Kurinji are a heart-warmer. The huge mauve carpets remind visitors of the Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas.

In Munnar, the Eravikulam National Park, which is a sanctuary for the endangered Nilgiri tahr, has vast areas of Neelakurinji. Each day this season, some 3,500 visitors have lined up in front of the park's ticket counters to view the flowers. Besides, there are large areas of Neelakurinji in nearby Kanthalloor, Kadavari, Kambakkal and Poovar. Across the border in Tamil Nadu, there are huge patches of Neelakurinji areas on the way to Kodaikanal. In Ooty, the Mukkurthy Peak in the Mukkurthy National Park is abloom too.

Neelakurinji is an endangered plant found in the shola grasslands of the Western Ghats at above-1,500-metre altitudes, particularly in the Nilgiris, the Palani Hills and the High Ranges around Munnar. It is a gregarious flowering plant and its seeds mature 10 months after flowering at which point the plant dies. It is the 12-year mass-flowering cycle that draws botanists and laypersons alike to Neelakurinji. The 12-year-cycle was first recorded in 1838.

According to G. Rajkumar, secretary of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Save Kurinji Campaign Council, a team of three German scientists had done important studies on the species several decades ago. The scientific name had changed several times before the name Strobilanthes kunthiana was settled. `Kunthiana' came from Kunth, who was a member of the German team.

Tribal communities in the Western Ghats had evidently been aware of the 12-year flowering cycle. Certain tribes believe that the flowering brings bad luck, including infertility. Others offer the flower to Muruga (it is referred to as Muruga's Flower by these tribes). So far no medicinal properties have been established for either the plant or the flower. Muthuvan tribesmen in Munnar told The Hindu that they used to get abundant supplies of honey from the forests a few months after the flowering.

Mr. Rajkumar said the Save Kurinji Campaign was promoting Neelakurinji as a mascot in its campaign for the preservation of the shola grassland ecosystem in the Western Ghats. Kerala Tourism is deploying the Neelakurinji factor to get tourists to visit Kerala.