We were walking through bushes to reach the restaurant in Mahabalipuram, when my companion stopped. “Do you know what the state flower of Tamil Nadu is?” he asked. This was embarrassing. I didn’t know states could claim a flower as their own. “Oh, it is jasmine,” I said, casually. No, he said and pointed to a red flower hidden in the undergrowth. “It’s called Gloriosa superba .” It could have knocked me down with a petal. Superb, I thought, a flower not many have heard of, not commonly seen, not written about, is our state flower? I decided to go after it.
“It has several common names,” said Prof. Thilagavathi, Botany Department, Queen Mary’s College. “Haven’t you heard of Glory Lily, Flame Lily, Fire Lily, Creeping/Climbing/Super Lily and Tiger Claw?” In Tamil, it’s known as Kanvalippoo, Karthigaipoo, Kandal and Senganthal Malar . It looks like a flame, so it is ‘ Agnisalam’ . Its tuber resembles a ploughshare so it’s called Kalappaikkilangu and Ilaangilee. The curled tips of its leaves that help it grasp support earned it the names Thalai-suruli and Patee. The curling grasp itself gave it the name Thontri. In indigenous medicine, it’s called Ven-thontri. The Karthigai flower breaks out in two colours — you’ll come across Ven-Kaanthal (white), and Chen-Kaanthal (red). “It’s an ornamental plant, even used as medicine, but it is also supposed to contain poison and is a “noxious” weed.”
Where can it be found, I asked. In tropical forests, thickets, woodlands, grasslands and sand dunes, in places at an elevation of 2,500 metres, she said. It grows in nutrient-poor soil. Well, everywhere — from the seashore to the evergreen forest, except in the desert — propagating itself through seeds and bulbs. “It is a perennial climber. Its fleshy, white, cylindrical tubers have “V” or “L”-shaped ends. If the flowers are showy and solitary, the leaves end in well-shaped hooks. You’ll see them locked in a strong handshake.”
The flowers remain fresh for seven days, she said. Their colour changes from green to yellow to scarlet, fading to red — the reason why they go unnoticed. But in the world market, they are prized for their rich source of colchicines (toxic alkaloid) and gloriosine. Every part of the plant is poisonous, she warned. It can cause nausea, numbness, tingling around the mouth, burning in the throat, abdominal pain, bloody diarrhoea and dehydration. But in traditional medicine, it helps in the treatment of gout, infertility, open wounds, snakebite, ulcers, arthritis, stomach worms and a host of other problems. The sap kills head-lice. A paste of the tuber is applied to heal skin disorders, scorpion bites, and used as a snake repellent.
I needed pictures. Try Madras Christian College, said my companion. Leslie Lawrence, Department of Botany, MCC, nodded appreciatively. “Yes, Gloriosa superba grows on the campus and its surroundings, and in the forests of Perungalathur. Its camouflage makes identification difficult in the field.” The campus climbers were not in bloom, so he took us to Catherine Soundararajan’s house, just across the Heber gate. There it was, in full bloom, hanging on her front fence, and around the porch pillar. We knocked at her door.
“I lived on the MCC campus,” she said, time-lining the story of her prized possession. “My father Rev. Samuel retired as Professor, Philosophy Department, served as Sub-Warden of Bishop Heber Hall (1937-1940), and my husband was the Principal’s Secretary. When I came to live here, I found several of these plants near the campus wall, and planted a few bulbs in my garden. Professor Crispin Devadoss (Former HOD, Department of Botany) took one look and said, ‘Poisonous plant!’, but I let it grow’.” They bloom from September to December, and then disappear, “I don’t know where,” but sprout again in August after the rains.
I still needed to know why we picked this “Lily” as our state flower. “Tamil poet, Arivumathi has noted that the Karthigai was the favourite of Murugan,” Prof. Thilagavathi said. Tamil kings wore garlands made of their favourite flower when they went to war. It’s possiblethe deity’s flower was chosen as the state flower.