January 11 – Kerala
(written by James Hearsum, photos by Aubree Pack)
(The garden entrance – where we went through intense security!)
The Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute outside Trivandrum, Kerala, India, was our first garden destination on the sub-continent. In many ways, it highlighted the needs, the challenges and the successes of botanical garden conservation programs around the world.
Focusing primarily on medicinal plants, the garden has well-explained and labelled displays of plants grouped by their function, both in traditional and modern medicine. 50 gardeners effectively maintain public display areas and plant production occurs on site.
(There were many exciting and unique plants in the garden!! And most definitely photo worthy, as demonstrated by Pandora :))
The group was shown several special collections by deeply knowledgeable plant experts, the most impressive of which was the fern collection. This has a long history in parallel with the garden and it was here that scientists discovered the plant with the most known chromosomes of any living thing in the 1990s. (The plant is Ophioglossum reticulatum and 2n=1260, though I am sure you knew that already!).
(Harvested coconut shells are used for their orchidarium)
Of 250 identified ferns in South India, NTBGRI holds 220, in addition to a collection of wider geographic origin. A collection of Cycads is being created for research and display, the only one in Southern India. The success of this is the greater as there has never been the opportunity for staff to visit any other collection elsewhere in the world.
The primary focus of the garden is the conservation of medicinal plant species and research using these plants. These are under considerable threat due to over collection by the rural population from forest areas. The garden has a team of 100 scientists based in the garden, in addition to field teams in the forests. Research covers many fields including ethnopharmacology, phytochemistry, bioinformatics, systematics and conservation biology.
(Everything about the garden was breathtaking, including the views out into the surrounding natural landscape!)
There are few areas of unspoilt forest to collect from, but the botanic garden has been working with local people to collect from sacred groves, which have not been subject to the same level of change through plant harvesting. New species continue to be described and the traditional medicinal properties of plants examined in the light of modern science.
(The Cacti House)
As with any garden, signs of changing weather patterns is evident to those with consistent local experience. A major cause of concern here? – That falling temperatures are causing the showpiece Victoria amazonicas to grow smaller each year!
Other causes for concern were raised, particularly the damage to the gardens mission being caused by the CITES regulations. A significant reduction in the gardens ability to cooperate with other major botanic gardens around the world has occurred in line with the inability to move plant materials. It was clear that there is a desire and ability to partner with gardens elsewhere but this hinders cooperation and communications remain difficult.
(The group with some of our expert plant guides)
Finally, a note about the drive! This was our first major experience of India and we were thrown in the deep-end. Navigation was by asking at each junction and village, as we careered through the suburbs of Trivandrum then the rural forest edge. On arrival we were all shaken, physically by the ride, and emotionally by what we had seen – what an amazing country! After this, we are ready to take anything in our stride.