Environment

The ‘Purple Carnival’ of the Flower That Blooms Once Every Seven Years

Safeguarding the Karvi and its natural habitats can support the livelihoods of forest-dwelling communities as well as help secure the biodiversity of the Western Ghats.

The Western Ghats is full of surprises. As an ecological researcher, I don’t have to wait for the vacations to explore them, and have been fortunate enough to have witnessed intriguing landscapes and delicate flowers across it. An unforgettable phenomenon among all this splendour is the mass blooming of the Karvi flower. This occasion is in some places also called mel, Marathi for ‘together’, in recognition of the unique and synchronised way in which the Karvi flowers all bloom. And when they do, they change the lush green of the Sahyadris into the Neelgiris, the ‘blue mountains’, over seven years.

The Karvi has an interesting lifecycle. It is semelparous, which means it flowers only once in a lifetime and then dies off soon after seeding. This sequence  of flowering and seeding is called masting; it reduces losses from invasion and ingestion, and maximises the flower’s chances of regeneration.

The Karvi belongs to the Strobilanthes genus of the Acanthaceae family. Some 46 of its species are found in India. Each species is characterised by its peculiar habitat.

The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosus), against the backdrop of severe draught in the last few years, provides an important ecological service. It grows in dense thickets and occupies steep treeless slopes. It effectively controls soil erosion, facilitates percolation and replenishes groundwater in the area. Credit: Jui Pethe

The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosus), against the backdrop of severe draught in the last few years, provides an important ecological service. It grows in dense thickets and occupies steep treeless slopes. It effectively controls soil erosion, facilitates percolation and replenishes groundwater in the area. Credit: Jui Pethe

It is a wildflower supporting both humans and wildlife, acting as a source of food for larger herbivores, cattle and smaller insects alike. It provides generous amounts of both nectar and pollen to its pollinators (primarily honeybees). Credit: Aniruddha Dhamorikar

It is a wildflower supporting both humans and wildlife, acting as a source of food for larger herbivores, cattle and smaller insects alike. It provides generous amounts of both nectar and pollen to its pollinators (primarily honeybees). Credit: Aniruddha Dhamorikar

The masting season is a busy time for honeybees and honey-hunters alike.

Pollinators prefer feeding on the Karvi as they get more food from a single flower. These bees produce the rare and precious unifloral Karvi honey, which has a unique blend of colour, taste and aroma. Credit: Jui Pethe

Pollinators prefer feeding on the Karvi as they get more food from a single flower. These bees produce the rare and precious unifloral Karvi honey, which has a unique blend of colour, taste and aroma. Credit: Jui Pethe

The Karvi also provides optimum protection to a variety of orchids and lilies, which flourish as its undergrowth.

Beautiful, rare and threatened orchids like Habenaria digitata and Peristylus stocksii flourish under dense Karvi thickets on Anjaneri hill. Credit: Amit Tillu

Beautiful, rare and threatened orchids like Habenaria digitata and Peristylus stocksii flourish under dense Karvi thickets on Anjaneri hill. Credit: Amit Tillu

Striga gesneroides, or Agya, is a total root parasite growing on the Karvi. It produces dazzling flowers but no leaves and survives at the cost of its host plant alone. Credit: Jui Pethe

Striga gesneroides, or Agya, is a total root parasite growing on the Karvi. It produces dazzling flowers but no leaves and survives at the cost of its host plant alone. Credit: Jui Pethe

 

Drimia indica, belonging to the lily family, grows amongst the Karvi and flowers during summers, when the Karvi is dormant. During monsoons, the denser Karvi protects its vegetative parts by keeping grazers away. Credit: Jui Pethe

Drimia indica, belonging to the lily family, grows amongst the Karvi and flowers during summers, when the Karvi is dormant. During monsoons, the denser Karvi protects its vegetative parts by keeping grazers away. Credit: Jui Pethe

The Karvi shelters and supports a broad spectrum of wild insects, which are responsible for pollinating many crops and forest trees in the vicinity. Credit: Jui Pethe

The Karvi shelters and supports a broad spectrum of wild insects, which are responsible for pollinating many crops and forest trees in the vicinity. Credit: Jui Pethe

The dried pods of the Karvi secrete a sticky aromatic fluid called kaif. Local communities around the Kalsubai Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuary mention that their cattle does not miss a chance to feast on the kaif of the Karvi. Credit: Jui Pethe

The dried pods of the Karvi secrete a sticky aromatic fluid called kaif. Local communities around the Kalsubai Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuary mention that their cattle does not miss a chance to feast on the kaif of the Karvi. Credit: Jui Pethe

Dried Karvi stems also support the livelihood of forest-dwelling communities. The wood of the Karvi is cut for domestic and commercial purposes.

The tensile and strong stems of the Karvi are bent and tied up into thick mats that are then used for constructing walls. Such walls are locally called kud. Credit: Mahadev Bhise

The tensile and strong stems of the Karvi are bent and tied up into thick mats that are then used for constructing walls. Such walls are locally called kud. Credit: Mahadev Bhise

Another Karvi found is the endemic, inverted bamboo basket like topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis).

The topli Karvi inhabits the shallow and soiled mountain tops. When they bloom, the green mountaintops are transformed into carpets of mauve in the sanctuary. Credit: Jui Pethe

The topli Karvi inhabits the shallow and soiled mountain tops. When they bloom, the green mountaintops are transformed into Mauve carpets of mauve in the sanctuary. Credit: Jui Pethe

The bhui Karvi (Nilgirianthus reticulata) also looks the topli Karvi and inhabits a similar habitat in the northern most tip of Western Ghats.

Anjaneri, like most of the mountaintops in the northernmost parts of the Western Ghats, is occupied by the bhui Karvi. This species has been found to be growing along with the Pinda cocanensis, Cyanotis cocanensis and Senecio dalzellii. Credit: Jui Pethe

Anjaneri, like most of the mountaintops in the northernmost parts of the Western Ghats, is occupied by the bhui Karvi. This species has been found to be growing along with the Pinda cocanensis, Cyanotis cocanensis and Senecio dalzellii. Credit: Jui Pethe

The neelkurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), unlike the Karvi, flowers once every 12 years.

The neelkurinji adorns the Shola forests of souther India. Local tribal communities use its masting episodes to calculate the age of th eplants. These beautiful flowers have inspired many romantic poems from the region. Credit: M.K. Asok/Wikimedia Commons

The neelkurinji adorns the Shola forests of souther India. Local tribal communities use its masting episodes to calculate the age of th eplants. These beautiful flowers have inspired many romantic poems from the region. Credit: M.K. Asok/Wikimedia Commons

Most of the Karvi grow in degraded soils and under harsh climatic conditions like high winds, extreme exposure to sunlight, heavy rains and drastic humidity variation to provide vital ecological services. Current land use patterns, including bringing wastelands like steep slopes and rocky plateaus under ‘productive uses’ like agriculture or plantations, have threatened this species.

Their extinction will have serious implications for the biodiversity of the whole of the Western Ghats. On the other hand, safeguarding the Karvi and its natural habitats can also support the livelihoods of tribal and forest-dwelling communities.

Jui Pethe is a freelancing ecological researcher working in the northern Western Ghats of Maharashtra.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Informative photo article on a rare flower species. Due to its usefulness in various ways, such plants must be grown and protected. The government should take necessary steps in cultivation.