Call to trace and revive lost waterbodies

Our friend Frank Heckman is interested in restoring the health of watersheds led by local communities, in a program he calls Green River, which is starting in the Gundar Basin in India in association with the Dhan Foundation. The work at the Sanctuary has been a big inspiration including the idea of the Green Phoenix as expressed by Wolfgang and others at the Sanctuary. This article in the Hindu describes presentations by Frank and Supi during the 21st Dhan Foundation Day celebration:


Hindu article: ‘Green river’ and ‘Green phoenix’ projects launched.

Gundar river basin, a system as unique as the Vaigai basin, must be protected as old tank systems work effectively. All lost waterbodies must be traced and revived, said Frank Heckman, founder of Embassy of the Earth.

Speaking on Green river- future of humanity at the Dhan Foundation’s 21st Foundation Day celebration, he said Gundar basin was spread over five districts.

As part of the celebration, Green river and Green phoenix projects were launched. Mr. Heckman said tanks-based watershed development programmes were vital for the Green river initiative. “There was a time when people could drink water directly from rivers and streams. It is now unimaginable. The process of greening the river is to ensure that areas around Gundar basin are recharged,” he said.

Modifying policies on waterbodies, effective local governance and proper education would facilitate change.

Conservationist Suprabha Seshan, managing trustee of Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, said those interested in conservation of flora and fauna were welcome to participate in Green Phoenix project. “The Western Ghats have been denuded due to rapid industrialisation. We work with village women at Wayanad in Kerala in protecting the habitat. The project is aimed at bringing nature back to life from ashes – like the mythical phoenix,” she said.

Ms. Suprabha said over 1,000 plant species had been preserved at the 67-acre sanctuary in Wayanad. She said that she envisioned a world where men and women lived in harmony with nature. Community participation included waste management, pollution control and rainwater harvesting, she said.

link to the original article

To the Rescue of Lantern Flowers

From Laly Joseph, plant conservationist and ecosystem gardener: “We have around 30 species of Ceropegias under cultivation, most of them are endangered or threatened in the wild, from habitat destruction and over-extraction of the plants for their edible tubers, and now for ornamental collections. We have been working on them for the last few years. Main difficulties they face are fungal and caterpillar attacks. Climate change is also becoming a problem for many of the Ceropegias. Pollen production is affected by weather. Also water availability during their growing period, affects seed production. We have managed to propagate 20-30 plants per species. A few are very difficult and we have only one or two plants. Prof Yadav of Kolhapur University was so happy to see C mahabalae under conservation cultivation here, that he organized an expedition so that we could find more. Now all the species here are making seeds, so we hope that next year the population under ex-situ conservation at the Sanctuary will double at least.”

From Wikipedia: “Ceropegia is a genus of plants within the family Apocynaceae, native to Africa, southern Asia, and Australia. It was named by Carl Linnaeus, who first described this genus in volume 1 of his Species plantarum, which appeared in 1753. Linnaeus thought that the flowers looked like a fountain of wax. From this the scientific name was derived: ‘keros’ meaning wax and ‘pege’ meaning fountain (Pooley, 1998). They have many common names including lantern flower, parasol flower, parachute flower, bushman’s pipe, string of hearts, snake creeper, wine-glass vine, rosary vine, and necklace vine. Ceropegia species are traded, kept, and propagated as ornamental plants.”

Ceropegias are sometimes mistaken for carnivorous plants, because of their elaborate flower structures that are indeed meant to trap flies. But this is not to “eat” them, but rather to entice and trap them for long enough that the flies pollinate them as they try to find a way out.

The Western Ghat Ceropegias all tend to be weak trailers or climbers. They grow from round potato-sized tubers sitting fairly deep in the soil. They are inconspicuous for most of the year, until they start to flower in their unique spectacular fashion.

From the Succulent Plants website:

This genus contains a diverse group of over 160 species distributed across Africa and Asia, from the Canary Islands, to Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Phillipines, New Guinea and Australia. The flowers occur singly or in umbel-like clusters and have a tubular fused petals and sepals. The base of the tube is often inflated and may have downward pointing hairs on the inside as well as the outside. Flowers can vary in colour from deep purples and reds to greens and yellows. In several species, the tips of the lobes form a cage-like structure. All this elaborate structure in order to trap flies which can remain inside until the flowers wilt.

The genus used to be placed in the family Asclepiadaceae which has now become a sub-family (Asclepiadoideae) within the Apocynaceae. Other genera in this family include Tabernaemontana and Rauvolfia in India, as well as the widely planted Frangipani, originally from South America. (Wikipedia).

Above: the potato-like tuber of a Ceropegia plant in a pot. Under cultivation, especially in pots and in this humid environment, Ceropegia tubers need to be planted close to the surface of the soil, even a little exposed, as they are very susceptible to rot induced by high moisture.

Above: Laly Joseph at work planting Ceropegias. Here it’s possible to see how slender these vines are.

Purvy Jain has had success with conserving three Ceropegia species in habitats. These are now making seeds which are germinating on their own, and beginning to form small populations.

Photos by Abhishek Jain and Suprabha Seshan. All the plants shown here are Western Ghat species under conservation at GBS.

Rare water-plants find a niche.

From Purvy Jain, plant conservationist and GBS ecosystem gardener: “Rearrangement of the stones and the space around the pond, helped to create a habitat for some very rare species. Eriocaulon ensiforme, Lagenandra keralensis, Phyllanthus singampattianus, to name a few”

Purvy works on a wide range of plants in a variety of communities: everything from rocky habitats to different sized water bodies and shola edges. Note the cliff-like backdrop to the pond with myriad species enjoying the steep vertical surface. This location had been a quarry and was landscaped for planting originally around 1998. Many species have been tried out here, and over time the shifting mosaic of ferns, impatiens, mosses, lycopods, gesneriads and grasses gives this hollow, with its pond, a quality of charm as well as intrigue. It’s always interesting here!

Photo by Purvy Jain

Happy Bamboo Orchids

From GBS plant conservationists and ecosystem gardeners Suma Keloth and Sora Tsukamoto: “We had Arundina graminifolia in the greenhouse for many years. After learning about their natural habitat we created a space for them on one of the new rockeries a few years ago. Last year we have noticed them self propagating on the mud bank in quite large numbers. Arundina graminifolia is quite wide spread but we have seen it only a few times in the wild on rocky slopes in grasslands in southern Kerala. It seems quite rare in south India.”

This south Indian ecotype of Arundina is very different in colour from its commoner north east Indian relative. The latter is a popular garden plant and commercially available. The genus Arundina is recognized to have only one species: A. graminifolia, with several ecotypes.

Above: the new outdoor habitat for Arundina at GBS, a rockery on a slope which once had tea. When out-planting techniques are successful, and we find the right location for species, the reward is often exuberant growth.

Above: baby Arundinas on the mudslope. Clearly, a self propagating population is robust, and can even be independent of our direct care in time. We can look forward to a mixed species grassland community, rehabilitated habitat formed from rehabilitated species.

Photos by Sora Tsukamoto

We did it!!

The crowdfunding campaign has been successful! Rainforest Concern raised £8790 of the £7,000 target with 71 backers in 56 days.


Thank you from everyone who has supported our Gardening back the biosphere. Now we can get stuck into working to protect the fragile ecosystem in this corner of the Western Ghats.

And as if in celebration, the Titan Arum at the sanctuary decided to bloom late this July for the first time in its nine year life. Classified as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, this species has the world’s largest inflorescence, as well as being one of the smelliest flowering plants! It is also known as the ‘Corpse Flower’ because of the strong and unpleasant stench it gives off to attract carcass eating insects to pollinate it. And its attracted more than insects, many visitors have come to the sanctuary to marvel at this rare flower.

60 days to support the Sanctuary

Today a Crowdfunding has started for the Sanctuary!

The aim: £7000 will train 5 young rural women in plant species conservation at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Western Ghats, India.



We need to raise £7000 to train five young rural women as ‘Ecosystem gardeners’. In a small corner of the Western Ghats, the Gurukula Botanicla Sanctuary has been conserving the herbaceous flora of the forests. This includes instruction and practice in the cultivation of endangered plants. Trainees are provided with meals, lodging, and a stipend. English language classes are available. Graduates of the one-year course would be expected to continue in fully-paid work at the Sanctuary for at least one more year.

We’ve got 60 days to raise the funds.


And The Forest Came Back!

The Swedish documentary filmmaker Boris Ersson is producing a series of films about people who dedicate their lives to saving some of the finest forests on earth. The film project is called “The Forest In Our Hearts”. He has visited the Sanctuary, below is a youtube video showing this visit:


Above: Impatiens acaulis in a rocky habitat at the Sanctuary

It’s the tail end of the south-west monsoon. The north-east  rains are about to begin. The gap between the two is very short this time. I’m sitting by some Impatiens plants in the shola habitat of the Sanctuary’s plant conservation area.The petals of each and every Impatiens flower glisten from the last shower, and the whole slope above me is backlit  in the morning sun. There are several different species of Impatiens here, some on trees, some on rocks, some growing tall and shrubby, others that are  annual, among grass. I watch them dipping their leaves in the warm breeze. They seem to thrive  in large gregarious huddles. They also snuggle up with mosses, grasses, orchids and all kinds of other plants. I watch the dazzle of colour, pinks and whites and crimsons and reds, offset by greens of every hue. 

Outplanted epiphytic Impatiens

Impatiens flowers are notorious among botanists for their so-called changeable characters. J. D Hooker,  who attempted the first classification of the species within the genus in the early 1900s complained that they are a ‘terror to botanists’ and ‘deceitful above all plants, and desperately wicked’.  And this too at a time when only  158 species had been described by botanists of the day. Now, over 850 species are described, mostly distributed in the tropics, from Africa to India, South Asia, southern China and Japan. The fact that there are only  a handful of  species found in America and Europe, presents a puzzle to phylogeneticists studying the group.

Above: A closer look at the flowers of a scapigerous Impatiens

I perch on my rocky ledge and wonder how Noah would have dealt with the Impatiens. How would he have decided on what is a kind, in his mission to have on board the ark, two and two of every kind? How would he have  distinguished between  different species in what’s arguably the largest genus in the whole world, at 1000 species (including the ones not yet described but still being debated). And would he have allowed them to multiply on board, and to further speciate too?

I’ve had a lot of problems with Noah, and not just because of his high handed choice of limiting the lucky ones  to only two per kind, but also for all the assumptions he must have made about sex and biology, about what constitutes  a minimum viable number, and whether individuals can exist outside of mixed species communities, in other words, whether there can be meaningful conservation if individuals removed from habitat. 

Above: Another scapigerous Impatiens

For if I were Noah, I would, in a heartbeat,  choose my personal friends and family (human and nonhuman) of course, but then I’d assume each of them would want to make their own further choices, and I’d acknowledge the interdependency between all of us, that is, between all creatures: animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria; and then I’d leave it up to everybody, to gather all those who they felt a belonging with. All this assuming that I, and I alone, had this choice, which of course begs a whole other series of questions on how any of us has the right to choose the fate of another. The ark concept, on closer look, is quite fraught, and needs to be rethought for those of us who work in conservation, and those of us who use the word ark as a metaphor to describe these refugia, and those of us who think of our captive breeding and ex-situ conservation centres as arks, where we-in-control, exercise choice, restriction, and the power to include or exclude one or the other. Which is not to say we don’t have limitations on what we can or not do (especially considering how the wild world is being further rapidly decimated). 

We acknowledge at the Sanctuary, that these choices are born out of space and time constraints partly, but much more out of our own abilities or lack of.  Cultivating specific plants such that they happily grow into populations, and into communities, takes a long time, and the learning curve is very steep. We have to make sure we don’t lose any in the first place. If things work out,  then it leads to better skills for growing other similar plants. Besides, we have  to encourage habitat growth at the same time as well, which in turn leads to conditions that other plants prefer, and these together, sound horticulture, combined with habitat rehabilitation or restoration is a far more effective way to support the plants we bring in through our search and rescue operations for rare and endangered species.

Above: Epiphytic Impatiens have pronounced juglike spurs

To complete the Noah issue, I would also have a problem on deciding on kind, or species, as a (taxonomically defined) discrete entity, when, pretty much everyone I see on this slope, is cohabiting in community, and I see the influence of environment on the bodies of each, and the behaviour of each, and how these so called discrete characters, are actually quite flexible, and certainly in the case of the Impatiens, they seem to be very flexible for they seem to be speciating under our very noses! The point being, these Impatiens are happy with these grasses, and these mosses, and these Wendlandia trees. And that perhaps left to themselves,  they have entirely another approach to the question of who is necessary, not on the basis of kind only, but on the basis of community.

Above: Annual Impatiens grow profusely in a grassland habitat at the Sanctuary

All these are purely personal thoughts that arise as I marvel at the daily work of plants, and the daily work of my colleagues at the Sanctuary. The spectacular achievements of Laly Joseph, in growing more than 100 species of Impatiens are evident firstly in the exuberant responses from the plants themselves. Laly’s ability to recognize similarities and differences between related plants, and her ease with modern taxonomy, as well as her own set of mnemonics derived from 25 years of close association with these plants, and a lifetime in this place, is a whole study in metacognition in itself, for it comprises an extraordinary memory for Impatiens biogeography across the Western Ghats, an awareness of their conservation status, a fine apprehension of their ecologies in each and every place, as well as hard skills in cultivating them so that they grow well in a living habitat, which, though primarily of their own making, is supported by techniques born from her understanding of what conditions they prefer.

Above: Epiphytic Impatiens in nursery

Various scientists have been trying to understand historical biogeography, speciation and diversification in the Impatiens genus for southern India, and also at a global level. By evolutionary biology accounts 100 species in a narrow mountain range, signifies a very high level of diversity. These scientists want to work out a tree of relationships (phylogeny) to see which of the forms would be the most ancient, the proto-Impatiens, the one from which all others arose. They also look at the genetics of flower colouration  and they collect leaf samples from as many species as possible to formulate what are called molecular protocols. Their field studies also look at pollinators that like the Impatiens. A very good friend of ours, Dr. Bhaskar, has written a monograph on the south Indian Impatiens, the most comprehensive and exhaustive work to date. 

Above: Impatiens raziana close up

But what defines the Impatiens? Here are some simple and straightforward clues to the genus : Herbaceous or shrubby plants, with fleshy watery translucent stems (which occasionally can be woody), prominent leaves which are also  soft and membranous and usually toothed at the edges, bright irregularly shaped flowers with 3-5 petals, often spurred,  and fused stamens forming  a cap over the ovary.  It’s the springy action of the seed pod or the capsule that gives the genus its name  (old folk name: Touch-me-not from the Latin noli-ma-tangere),  the way it explodes on being  touched, when ripe, so that the seeds may disperse widely. Erasmus Darwin, great grandfather of Charles Darwin has a verse on this peculiarity, in his long poem ‘The Loves of Plants’, published in 1791.With fierce distracted eye Impatiens stands, Swells her pale cheeks and brandishes her hands, With rage and hate the astonished groves alarms, And hurls her infants from her frantic arms.”I’ve never understood how he got away with that, perhaps because he was Erasmus Darwin!

Above: Impatiens maculata, a perennial Impatiens

And for those who like to  muse upon the meaning of flowers,   Impatiens, in traditional European flower lore, signify “ardent love”.  Further, the  family Balsaminaceae derives its name from the word balsam, meaning: liquid resin or resinous oily substance. Chambers also provides the following interpretations for balsam: any healing agent; fragrant (balsamy). The word balm, incidentally, has its roots in balsam, which itself has ancient roots in the Greek word : balsamon.

Someday I would love to know more from our Paniya neighbours and Kurchiya neighbours about plants like the Impatiens. There are so many parallel and intertwined taxonomies still alive in places like Wayanad with its rich human diversity, that to tease out one would be a lifetime’s study.

Above: Outplanted scapigerous Impatiens with epiphytic grass

The Impatiens have presented a problem to taxonomists for two reasons primarily: they make very poor herbarium specimens because of the succulent and watery nature of their tissues; they are indeed highly variable in nature, hybridizing rapidly to form all kinds of intermediate forms which bridge the gap between species that are often very distinct, and this over relatively short periods of time, within our experience for instance.

In our work in plant conservation we deal not only with this variability of plant form but also with life histories, ecologies and preferences – big and small.  So, of course we are continually brought face to face with  the link between plants and  time and space (the crux of biogeography): the past in the present as it were,  through form and hue, the sense that there are aeons of time rolled up in one curve, one shape and then its relationship  to the  land that we, the plant and us, together inhabit today. And in evolutionary biology terms, this movement and adaptation of beings across the planet, over vast stretches of time, leads to the endless variety we see around us.

Above: Impatiens grandis, also a perennial.

                                 Above: Impatiens grandis

In the monsoon the Impatiens are everywhere. With more than 100 species in these mountains, it’s like having 100 species of the Panthera genus in the same area. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in the Ghats in this season and not see them, and what’s fun is that there are special ones to each of the plateaux and peaks and ranges within the whole range, and different species at different elevations, and also lots of different types of Impatiens, from annuals to perennials, and stemless ones, to shrubby and epiphytic ones.

I love meeting different species of Impatiens in different parts of the Western Ghats, there is something about them that seems to give a very special character to a place, almost like the yellow browed bulbuls and the slaty headed scimitar babblers, which to me, are inextricably part of waking up here everyday.  

Why only the Impatiens speciated in this “rapid” way is still a mystery, but they do indeed seem to love cool wet places, they are clearly tropical mountain plants: orophytes. They tend to congregate in altitudes over 1000m and they love high rainfall.  

We’ll await the findings of evolutionary biologists: why did so many species come about in this mountain range, and do they go back to an ancestral single one that was common to the mountains of Africa and India, and is it that, over the sixty million year drift, the mountains grew hot and cold, grew higher, were isolated from other mountains, and that this mountain building process, went  hand in hand with the speciation of Impatiens? 

Some scientists insist we have to go deep into the cell, to find the conclusive factor to explain the endless transfiguring beauty of Impatiens variety, and how after all this time, and all this circumstance, one genus should attain such richness. Others say, something in the environment reciprocates with something in their genes, that the two play upon each other,  that a twist in the chromosomal  structure of the Impatiens group leads to their mutation under stress, especially under stress from excess or insufficient water. One theory goes that the size of Impatiens chromosomes is affected by the amount and periodicity of moisture available to the plant. And this in turn leads to an unusual degree of hybridization between species. As gardeners we don’t dwell too long on the why question, we have so many other more pressing issues to deal with, but we all love to hear good stories!

Above: Impatiens scapiflora growing on trees and rocks at the Sanctuary

Laly knows their biogeography really well. She and I made a table some 15 years ago, long before we got a computer. We did two versions of this table, so we could see all the species on the left first column, and against each all the places and all their ecological preferences, and their conservation status, and horticultural details. In the next table, we had all the places from north to south in the left column, and then for each place, all the species found there. This was our first handwritten database, and was really interesting, because we could see clusters of subgroups within the genus, and then see how these clustered in particular places.

I remember almost the exact moment I got hooked by them, traveling up a winding road up the steep Nilgiri escarpment, how suddenly my attention was commanded by them, because I had learned to see them. Those roadside succulent weedy plants with  pretty pink flowers, that I just  glanced at on previous journeys now began to turn my head. In that mountain area alone there were some 38 species, all endemic to that locale, found nowhere else in the Western Ghats, let alone Asia or the world.

Above: Impatiens dalzelli, an annual

All this thought on a group of plants, is just to demonstrate the surprises in store when anyone starts to engage with the natural world. I’m presenting the Impatiens as a synecdoche, that is, using a part to talk of the whole.

For conservation gardeners at the Sanctuary, the genus signifies: a particular complex of physical, climatic and evolutionary factors, without which we would not have the Impatiens in such diversity and abundance;  the abundance of sweet water, both atmospheric and ground,  cascading down rock slopes and vertiginous cliffs, and in gusting deluges from the sky; the beauty of a season, a magical monsoonal beauty, with meadows and dark sholas and mossy tree trunks coming alive in a blaze of colour; the intensely contrasting phases of dry and wet, leading to peculiar stresses on Impatiens physiologies and growth preferences; and of course, the presence of all kinds of other beings, from butterflies and birds and frogs, to mosses and orchids and grasses and if you look further, to tahr and sambhar and tiger and elephant.

The Impatiens genus also signifies the decades of collective time given over by various botanists, Hooker and Gamble and Fischer and Wight and Barnes and Bhaskar, who were all mystified by the taxonomic slipperiness of the group!

Above: Maya Goel , by a MIchelia champaca tree covered in scapigerous Impatiens in the monsoon, near her home in Kodagu

But mostly, Impatiens signify most profoundly, home. Like for young Maya in the picture above, for me, home is where wild balsams grow free.