If you visit the Western Ghats in a few months, you will find the usual brown and green give way to an intense, vivid purple. The spectacle is rare – it can be seen only once in eight years. This is when the Strobilanthes callosa — karvi in Marathi — blooms en masse, carpeting entire hillsides in purple. The shrub is scheduled to flower this year, after 2008.
While the slopes of Matheran, Panchgani, Bhimashankar, Khandala and Malshej Ghat are expected to be covered with the karvi, one of the best spots in Mumbai to see the mass flowering this year is the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).
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Karvi is endemic to the Western Ghats, mostly growing wild in Maharshatra, although the geographical spread of the plant extends to Karnataka in the south, Gujarat in the north and Madhya Pradesh in the east. The shrub is about two to four metres tall, and the flowers, when they bloom, are hugely attractive to bees, butterflies and other creatures that feed on nectar. The lifecycle of the karvi is fraught with drama — the mass blooming happens during July-August, with the average lifespan of each flower being 15 to 20 days. After this, the shrub bears fruits that become progressively drier until the following monsoon when, as the first drops of rain hit them, all the fruits simultaneously burst open with loud pops and sow the seeds for the next generation of the species, even as the parent shrub withers and dies.
Naturalist and writer Isaac Kehimkar, who has been tracking the species for the past 30 years, says in the years that the karvi blooms, honey production spikes. “The particular honey that comes from the nectar of these flowers is dark and very viscous, and has a unique flavour. It is also supposed to have medicinal qualities, but that aspect has not really been well-researched yet,” he says.
The karvi sometimes blooms out of schedule, but Kehimkar says this could be a form of “insurance” for the plant, to safeguard its survival in case something goes wrong during the actual flowering.
Other plants of the genus Strobilanthes have similarly long flowering cycles – some as long as 16 years. The most famous relative of the karvi is the neela kurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), which bursts into flower every 12 years in the shola forests in southern India and gives the Nilgiri Hills (Blue Mountains”) its name.
What makes the karvi very important within its ecology is the tenacity with which the plant holds onto the soil it’s growing in. Kehimkar says, “Karvi shrubs don’t grow everywhere, and seem to prefer rocky, laterite soils of the hills. Once the plant has taken root on a hilly slope, it spreads very fast and grows to cover the entire slope and holds the soil together with its roots. It thus plays a very important role in checking the erosion of these slopes, since there are not too many other plants that can do this job as well as the karvi.” This makes the plant potentially lifesaving, especially with landslides increasing in the Ghats.
According to Kehimkar, the only real threat to the karvi comes from habitat loss. Thus, as more hillsides are lost to development, we end up losing a plant that provides the Western Ghats ecological value, and us with a spectacular view every eight years.