Babu calls himself a gardener, of a garden so special that it hosts over 1500 species of medicinal plants from all over India. He literally talks to plants and they listen.
Poornima Kannan interviews him for JLR Explore.
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How did your interest in trees come about?
I’ve always been interested in plants. It could be because my grandfather and my mother practiced medicine using herbs, or maybe because I had great teachers, both in my high school and college. I grew up in a village near Madurai, and went onto do a Bachelors’ degree in botany from the American College, Madurai.
Would you like to tell us about your mentors and how they shaped you to what you are today?
I never used to carry lunch to college. My lecturer, Mr.John Jebaraj, had noticed it. One day, he gave me a lunch box and said, “Go to the lab and open it.” The container felt very light, and I opened it to find a plant specimen in it. He said, “Try and identify the species, you’ll get one such specimen every day. This skill will help you in the future.” Mr.Jebaraj had about 300 species on his terrace and in all nooks and corners of his house. I diligently identified every single plant species he gave me.
Mr.Winfred Thomas, another lecturer, guided me to the FRLHT network. After completing my M.Sc, I was unemployed only for about an hour before I joined the Medicinal Plants Conservation Park at Madurai. Initially, my responsibility was to maintain the nursery at the site. Later, they asked me to bring plants and create an ethno-medical forest. As a result, I had to interact with many herbal practitioners and did botanical surveys of the entire range of Madurai, Virudunagar and Thirunelveli districts.
You have conducted many botanical surveys, identified several species of medicinal plants, and documented ethno-botanical information. Can you elaborate on this?
I have conducted many botanical surveys that lasted 10 to 15 days each in Southern Indian States, Central India and North-East Indian regions. In every survey, a member of the local community accompanied me; most of them were knowledgeable practitioners. Together, we documented information about the use of medicinal plants. FRLHT now has comprehensive data for about 6000 unique species of medicinal plants used in our medical traditions.
Of all the scientific research articles you have published, which ones have been closest to your heart?
I was awarded the Schlich Prize in the year 2005 for the best scientific article in India titled, ‘Sustainable harvest of medicinal plants – an initiative in Southern India,’ published in Indian Forester. This article is about the gatherers of medicinal plants in and around Madurai, Tamil Nadu. I was the field investigator to ensure the sustainable harvest of medicinal plants. The original design of the project was to train the gatherers on sustainable methods of harvesting herbs. Interestingly, I learned many things from the herbal gathering communities. They were already sensitive about sustainable utilization, and were experts in identifying medicinal herbs including differentiating the closely allied species/ taxa. In the process, I realised that this knowledge didn’t reach their future generations. The documentation of their knowledge on sustainable collection procedures was done and made available to the present and future generations and also to the ‘new entrants’ venturing into the field of herbal medicine.
Can you tell us about your interactions with the practitioners?
During one of the surveys in a place called Thaniparai at the foothills of Shaduragiri forest, we were in a sacred grove that has been preserved. One man from the Paliyar tribe squeezed the leaves of kattukodi, a creeper, and left it on a plate. It turned into a semisolid state. He added some sugar and said it would taste like the sweet dish halwa, so I must taste it without fear. It was then that I realised that the practitioners are very well versed with the flora of their surroundings.
You have been instrumental in rearing many rare species of plants; can you share any interesting incidents with us?
I had two specimens of Embelia ribes, an endemic creeper, and planted it in FRLHT. I noticed that it did not show signs of growth at all. I started talking to the plant and paid more attention to it. If even one leaf emerged, I used to show the plant and the new leaf to anyone who passed by, be it the Director, the gardener or the instructor. When you sow a seed, you need to be part of the process of the tree’s growth, not just bury the seed and forget about it. Plants listen to us. In FRLHT, people are trained to love plants, connecting to plants is important.
Tell us more about your field experiences.
At one point of time, I used to work as a volunteer for the Western Ghats Biodiversity Network under Madhav Gadgil. Later, as Consultant Botanist for FRLHT, I used to do surveys – 10 days each in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. My knowledge in botany increased as I spent more time in the field.
Would you like to share an interesting incident during your college days?
During my M.Sc course, Mr.Hariram Murthy was instrumental in getting me into Medicinal Plants Conservation Parks (MPCP) in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. The Director of that MPCP agreed to the condition that if I get a herbarium, he would pay me Rs 50 per species for the propagation of seed and seedlings. He surely didn’t know what he was getting into. I set on to the task and started my collection. In a matter of 5 days, the value of my species collection touched Rs. 35,000.The supervisor was in a fix, he did not know what to do. Mr.Hariram intervened and suggested that he could pay my fees (Rs. 6000) for my Masters degree, to which he promptly agreed.
Is it possible to have a herbal garden in corporate offices?
Yes, it is possible. So far, we have helped in establishing more than 1000 herbal gardens for institutions, industries and corporate offices.
Can we use medicinal herbs for common ailments like fever, cold etc?
Yes, they can be used for common ailments. The brain behind this concept is Shri. Darshan Shankar, the Founder Director of FRLHT. His vision is to achieve self-reliance in primary healthcare by creating home/ institution gardens. FRLHT has also published “Secrets of Ethno Medicinal Gardens”, the first working manual in India on establishing herbal gardens.
What are your thoughts on the benefits of native species?
Landscaping with native medicinal plants has several appealing factors. Native plants are those that evolved naturally in our country, therefore these are well adapted to soil, moisture and climatic conditions and they require less maintenance. Once established, they require no irrigation or fertilizers and are resistant to most of the pests and diseases. Native plants also attract pollinators such as butterflies, birds and bees by providing food and shelter to them and keep the ecosystem pure and healthy. There are species like the Pongam (Pongamia pinnata) tree, that keep the environment pollution-free by absorbing polluted air. Herbal gardens may include greens, fruits and tubers that serve both as food and medicine. They contribute to the nutritional needs of the family. Also, there are specific species useful for enhancing the quality of drinking water. Medicinal plants – in their natural form or after simple home-based processing – can provide safe and effective solutions for common health complaints. Herbals are good for preventive health care related to diabetes, dental and skin and hair care, memory enhancement and so on. Some of these plant species are also found to be effective for domesticated livestock and can even be used as bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides. Planting native medicinal plants in gardens also preserves part of our natural resources and health heritage. These medicinal plants not only add to the scenic beauty of the place, but also give us better health and protect the environment.
Can you share some insights from the floristic study you did in Chitradurga district?
My floristic study of Chitradurga revealed that natural grassland ecosystems need to be conserved. During this survey, various species that were thought to be extinct were rediscovered in Karnataka; in particular, two varieties of Caralluma species in the Challakere grasslands, and that after a period of 80 years! The only other location that these plants are known to exist is in Pudhukottai of Tamil Nadu. The research also revealed that 84 species of indigenous grass flora are found in the study area. Such extraordinary diversity of grasses in such a small area is to be celebrated and the landscape protected, as grasses form the fundamental basis of securing food security of humans. Of the 304 red-listed medicinal plants published by IUCN, 22 taxa are found in Chitradurga
Your study reveals that these grasslands are extremely rich in biodiversity, shouldnt they be protected from grazing?
In fact, during the study, it was observed that the local communities in and around the Amrit Mahal Kaval area of Challakere taluk were extremely sensitive to the biodiversity value of these unique grassland ecosystems, and their use of this range for pastoral and other needs did not tax the ecosystem beyond sustenance limits. For instance, pastoral communities used the grassland areas without resorting to overgrazing, and the grass was managed in a way that would allow species like the Blackbuck to thrive. Were it not for the interventions of pastoral communities, the uncontrolled growth of grasses would have risked spread of fires, which would have devastated the unique flora of the region.
What steps have you taken to spread awareness on the wealth of medicinal flora?
- I have been writing a series of articles to The New Indian Express on medicinal trees to familiarise and popularise medicinal plants to the public.
- Established conservatories for medicinal plants and red-listed medicinal plants at strategic places. Some of these conservatories are in Lalbagh and GKVK, Bangalore and TATA Chemicals Private Limited, Pune.
- Established a biodiversity park at Vidyanagar Township, Jindal Steel Works, Bellary.
- Conducted several awareness programmes, exhibition and sale events in South India.
- Developed the country’s first, privately funded live repository of red-listed medicinal plants in 30 acres (15000 medicinal plants have been planted already) through Jindal Steel Works, Vidyanagar Township, Bellary.