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Three new balsams add to Nilgiris biodiversity colours

Tarun Chhabra.M. Sathyamoorthy

Tarun Chhabra.M. Sathyamoorthy  

Dentist with passion for plants makes botanical discovery

Three new species of plants belonging to the Balsaminaceae family were identified in the Mukurthi National Park in the Nilgiris recently.

The three, named Impatiens kawttyana , Impatiens taihmushkulni and Impatiens nilgirica , found by Tarun Chhabra and Ramneek Singh a few years ago, were formally classified recently. Their discovery was published in the Nordic Journal of Botany in December 2016.

Endemic species

Dr. Chhabra, a practising dentist and cultural anthropologist who has worked closely with the Toda tribes, has published a book titled The Toda Landscape. Talking to The Hindu , he said several years have passed since new plant species were discovered in the Nilgiris, and the new species throw light on the continued importance and diversity of the Nilgiris.

“There are more than 135 endemic species of plants in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, of which the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu forms the core, with over 90 endemics,” Dr. Chhabra said.

Impatiens kawttyana , as described by Chhabra and Ramneek, is identifiable by its large, white flowers, glandular hairs followed by white hairs at the throat, and has been named after a Toda deity hill, ‘Kawtty’, commonly known as Pechakal bettu .

Similarly, the Impatiens taihmushkulni is named after the Toda deity hill, ‘Taihmushkuln’. Like the halls of Valhalla in Norse mythology, the Todas believe that their god ‘Aihhn’ resides and rules the Toda afterworld from the hill.

Impatiens nilgirica variant nawttyana, differs slightly from a previously identified species, with the newly found variety having “longer scape (part of a stalk bearing flowers) and petioles (the stalk that joins the leaf to the stem), with white flowers,” among other small variations. This variety was named based on what the Todas call the members of the Balsaminaceae family — ‘Nawtty.’

Dedicated guardians

The naming of the three species after Toda deities isn’t coincidental. Dr. Chhabra says the names reflect the Todas’ crucial role in maintaining pristine ecosystems, especially in the Mukurthi National Park.

“At least 14 of the sacred deity hills of the Todas are located inside the park and they have played a tremendous role in protecting the area,” said Mr. Chhabra.

The three new species were found in isolated pockets of the Mukurthi National Park and Porthimund reserve forests, and while I. taihmushkulni has been tentatively classified by researchers to be ‘endangered’, there was not enough data on the other two species, Dr. Chhabra explained.

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