A glorious yellow bloom in honour of botanist E.K. Janaki Ammal

Plant breeders craft a rose named after the famous botanist.

June 08, 2019 11:26 pm | Updated June 09, 2019 05:44 pm IST - CHENNAI

The rose named E.K. Janaki Ammal. Photo: Special Arrangement

The rose named E.K. Janaki Ammal. Photo: Special Arrangement

It’s doubtful that this rose by any other name will smell as sweet to those who know of scientist E.K. Janaki Ammal and her vast work in the field of botany.

Named after the scientist, the rose — a hybrid painstakingly crafted by plant breeders Viru and Girija Viraraghavan — is now in glorious yellow bloom at Kodaikanal. The couple were first introduced to Janaki Ammal when Mr. Viraraghavan got his copy of the Chromosome Atlas of All Cultivated Plants , co-authored by the scientist, in the 1960s.

“It is considered a bible among plant scientists. And Viru has thumbed through his copy so many times, it had to be bound. However, it was not until three or four years ago that we really woke up to Janaki Ammal,” Mrs. Viraraghavan explained. They read about her work and made efforts to reach out to the family and colleagues of the scientist, who dazzled the world of plant sciences in the 20th century.

Janaki Ammal was born in Thalaserry in Kerala in 1897. She went on to graduate, and then specialise in Botany in Madras, and landed the prestigious Barbour fellowship at the University of Michigan, U.S. She taught in Chennai and Trivandrum for some years, before doing work on sugarcane in the Indian Academy of Sciences. She reportedly created hybrids that made the Indian cane sweeter.

E.K. Janaki Ammal.

E.K. Janaki Ammal.


Records of her life available publicly note that caste and gender discrimination forced her move to the U.K. where she joined the John Innes Institute, Norwich, as a cytologist. After which, it could be said, that her career truly bloomed. It was also in England that the first plant was named after her: a Magnolia kobus.

A sartorial coincidence

“Since we felt very strongly that enough recognition had not been given to this pioneering woman scientist of our country, who practically died in oblivion, despite her mammoth botanical research, we felt that we would like to honour her by naming a rose after her,” Mrs. Viraraghavan said.

The couple was delighted when they realised the hues of the yellow rose closely resembled those of the plain sarees the scientist preferred to wear. Mrs. Viraraghavan, said that the rose named E.K. Janaki Ammal was bred from Rosa clinophyla which is the only tropical rose species in the world. She said the plant was easy to grow, and would do well in the plains too. Mr. Viraraghavan’s submission to the International Rose Registration suggesting the name for the new hybrid was accepted last year.

The couple now aims to get the rose to the gardens where Janaki Ammal did her work. It has reached the U.K. already, and letters have been sent to Michigan University and the Botanical Survey of India.

The Viraraghavans are thrilled, not only with the hybrid, but also because things have gone the right way for it. “It is such a beautiful rose, and now it has a fitting name.” Janaki Ammal’s name lives on, in magnolias, roses and people’s minds.

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