Bengaluru-based biologist launches digital database of flora of India

Dr. Sankara Rao, Visiting Professor and Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, talks about India Flora Online, a digital database of the flora of India set to be launched today

Updated - April 08, 2024 06:54 pm IST

Published - April 08, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Floral diversity in a lateritic plateau.

Floral diversity in a lateritic plateau. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

Dr. Sankara Rao has been fascinated by plants for as long as he can remember. “When someone scolded me at home, I would go sit on a guava tree, eat fruits and refuse to come home,” says Rao, who grew up in a densely vegetated part of Kakinada in East Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh. He remembers playing amidst the trees, jumping from branch to branch, spending so much time on them that when his father returned home from work and asked his mother about her son, her standard response would be that he was on a tree. “I think it is inborn,” says Rao, who is all set to launch India Flora Online, a digital database of the flora of India, the only such of its kind in the country. 

India Flora Online, which also includes a record of plants from Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan, is the fourth such plant database initiative he has been instrumental in launching, following Digital Flora of Karnataka (2014), Digital Flora of Eastern Ghats (2019), and Flora of Peninsular India (2019). “I have been working day and night on this,” says Rao, pointing out that having an easily accessible resource such as this will offer people knowledge about every plant in the country. “This fulfils the country’s need to bring its plant wealth into one searchable source,” he believes. 

 Dr. Sankara Rao

Dr. Sankara Rao | Photo Credit: Picasa

Starting a herbarium 

Rao, Visiting Professor and Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), has been in charge of the herbarium at CES for around 17 years. It is his “post-retirement work,” he says. He took on the role after he retired from IISc’s Biochemistry Department in 2001, after working there for nearly 20 years. “Biochemistry is, after all, the functioning of the biological systems, a manifestation of life.” 

He spent the first three years after retirement as an Emeritus Professor before joining CES to take care of the department’s herbarium (a collection of plant samples preserved by drying and pressing for long-term study), incidentally one which he had been instrumental in starting decades ago. “I was one of the co-founders of the Herbarium JCB with Father Cecil Saldanha,” says Rao, recounting how the two began developing the collection at St. Joseph’s College in Bengaluru when they worked together in the 1960s and 70s.

Rao was already part of St. Joseph’s Botany Department when Father Saldanha joined it in 1964 after working at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai (then Bombay). “He came with a specialisation in Botany and wanted to continue his research in it,” says Rao. He adds that Saldanha was looking for an associate who was also interested in plants and plant taxonomy when he arrived at St. Joseph’s. “He wanted someone with a similar thinking. He found one in me,” he says.

India Flora Online, the digital database of the flora of India.

India Flora Online, the digital database of the flora of India. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

Expeditions around Bengaluru

He recalls how the two of them would go on expeditions in and around Bengaluru every weekend, collecting all kinds of plants and even purchasing a used jeep that they used on these journeys. “In those days, the suburbs in Bangalore were all forest,” says Rao, pointing out that the Bannerghatta Forest used to start near the MICO factory back then. “Bannerghatta, which is in the southern part of the Deccan, was where we collected a lot of plants,” he says, remembering how they even encountered wild animals, especially bears, on these trips. “I used to spend much of my spare time with him (Father Saldhana),” he says. 

Cut to the year 1984. Father Saldanha, who had retired from St. Joseph’s at the age of 60, joined IISc, bringing his herbarium collection with him. “He was invited by Madhav Gadgil, the founder of the CES department,” says Rao. Sadly, Saldanha passed away less than two years after that, leaving behind this collection of around 16,000 specimens. “They did not know what to do with it, so they came to me,” says Rao, who took on the responsibility of managing the plant collection completely in 2007. 

Since then, the collection has grown in size and scope, now boasting about 22,000 specimens collected from all over the subcontinent. In 2014, he realised that this information needed to be in the public domain; so he created the first comprehensive online database, Digital Flora of Karnataka, which provides details around 4,918 species. The details include the plant’s scientific and common names in English and vernacular languages, information about its taxonomy, key identification features, and geographic distribution, besides images of the herbarium sheet from the CES collection, as well as its photographs from the field.  

Digital Flora of Eastern Ghats and Flora of Peninsular India, both released in 2019, list 4,097 and 10,210 species, while the most recent–India Flora Online–has details of a whopping 15,349 plants found across India. “I have worked only on higher groups of plants: angiosperms (flowering plants), gymnosperms (cone-bearing plants) and ferns,” says Rao, who has yet to document fungi, algae and lichens. “I have my limitations,” he admits.

Why document?

According to the Conservation International website, biodiversity hotspots are “places on earth that are both biologically rich and deeply threatened.” To qualify as one, a site must meet two criteria: It must have at least 1,500 endemic vascular plants (those with veins to conduct food and nutrients), making it extremely unique, and needs to possess less than 30% of its original natural vegetation, indicating that it is highly endangered. 

Of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots, regions uniquely rich in plant and animal life, four major ones are located in India — the Himalayas, the Indo-Burma Region, the Western Ghats, and Sundaland – making the country a treasure trove of natural wealth. “India harbours some major biodiversity hotspots,” says Rao, pointing out, however, that collated information about our plant wealth is still lacking.

In the absence of sufficient data about this natural heritage, “people often don’t know what is what; what we have lost and what we are left with,” he says. “We need to have a reference point.” Having this data, particularly on a searchable online database, can go a long way towards conserving ecosystems, benefiting the natural world and indigenous people who depend on these systems for their livelihood, enhancing plant diversity and preserving the germplasm of our cultivated plants, among other things. “It will help to manage, monitor and preserve what we are left with,” he believes.

India Flora Online will be launched at IISc’s Faculty Hall, Main Building, on Monday, April 8. The event is open to all.

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