I have a vague memory of climbing through Karvi flowers in bloom as a child, but hard as I try, I can’t conjure up an image of a mountainside clothed with gentle violet Karvi flowers. Nor can I remember having picked up a fallen flower and carefully pressed it in my notebook. The sight of an entire mountainside in Karvi bloom could not have been a vague memory. It was time to correct the follies of childhood. I drove up to Panchgani, in the Western Ghats, to witness the first Karvi Festival in the region, held to celebrate the unique flowering phenomenon of the plant.
The Karvi, Strobilanthes callosa, is a specialised large shrub, a star in the large Strobilanthes genus. On steep basaltic slopes of the Western Ghats, with poor soil, where few other plants tread, Karvi thrives. Fresh leaves sprout with the arrival of the monsoon and grow to a large bristled green. With winter, the leaves fall, and, by summer, the plant appears dry. This growth cycle continues till the clock ticks past the seventh monsoon. Dense patches of Karvi set the slopes afire as it buds, and, then, bursts into beautiful violet flowers every eight years. Across its entire range, the buzzing of bees collecting nectar takes over, pollinating the flowers. The fruits take three-four months to mature, produce seeds, dry up, and, about January, the Karvi dies en masse.
Karvi displays a unique hygrochastic seed dispersal process. Botanist Aparna Watve explains that when the dried fruits are exposed to a prolonged wet spell, they split into two halves and the seeds held until now by an inbuilt recoil mechanism, pop out at high speed. They land up to five meters away from the mother plant and sprout with the monsoon. Another millennial cycle of the seven-year-itch starts. This phenomena is typical of the large Strobilanthes genus, of which India has about 56 species.
This year, another species, the Topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis), called so due to its resemblance to an inverted basket, topli in Marathi, that grows on plateaus in the northern Western Ghats, has also bloomed. Topli Karvi does not share the same flowering cycle as the Karvi. Mahadev Bhise, a naturalist, explains that, locally, Topli Karvi is known as akra — 11 in Marathi — representing the local interpretation of its flowering cycle. It is also called bakra as the plants resemble sheep grazing with their heads in the grass.
If the simultaneous flowering of two species of Karvi wasn’t enough, this year, the southern superstar of this genus, Nilakurunji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), known to have a 12-year flowering cycle, has also flowered in parts of the range spread over Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One story goes that the blue-violet flowers of Nilakurunji that takes over entire mountains has given Nilgiris its name.
The Karvi/Kurinji plant and the flowering phenomena is intertwined with the lives of indigenous communities. The Muthuvas of Munnar and the Todas of Nilgiris consider the flowering of Kurinji auspicious. Local customs decry the destruction of the plant until the seeds mature 10 months after the flowering. Muthuvans calculated their age as multiples of the Kurinji flowering cycle and consider the Kurinji to be the symbol of love and romance.
Even among animals, the Karvi is very popular. Namdeo, a trekking guide from Panchgani, says gaurs (Indian bison) walk through dense patches of Karvi to get themselves scratched by its bristled leaves and rough stems. Botanist Balkrishna Gawade, assistant professor at Kankavli College, says, gaur and deer love to eat its leaves and bears the fruit. Botanist Anita Varghese of Keystone Foundation, Kottagiri, says, “During flowering, the mountains buzz with overworked bees producing a once-in-12-years, premium, 100 per cent Kurinji honey.”
Yet, conservation issues plague the future of this unique plant too. Karvi flowering tourism has taken off in Panchgani, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, Chorla Ghat, Goa, Amboli and Munnar. “Event organisers should not let this unique opportunity to engage with ecology and conservation issues get reduced to a photo opportunity,” says Pune-based naturalist Saili Palande Datar.
In the Nilgiris, since the time of the British, Nilakurinji has been replaced by tea, pine, wattle and eucalyptus plantations, dams, construction and other markers of “development”. The restricted distribution of the Karvi makes them more vulnerable. According to Samira Rathore, post-doctoral scholar at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, alien invasive plants like Ageratina adenophora have taken over Kurinji habitats in the BR Hills.
It is not that the state authorities are not doing anything. Sunil Limaye, CCF Wildlife, Pune division, says that they have discontinued the practice of taking up Karvi habitats for tree plantation. Varghese is concerned that there are other lesser-studied relationships of these flowering events to changes in climate. She has often heard the locals complain how the flowering has become patchy over the years.
Karvi mass flowering moves people deeply. Mandakini Mathur, organiser of the festival, says the idea came to her in part as a homage to a Panchgani veteran, late Vinayak Dixit, a keen naturalist, who had first showed her Karvi flowering 16 years ago. At the festival, a biology teacher from Sanjeewan School excitedly shared how she had discovered the flower thanks to the festival brochure and was surprised to find it flowering in her school campus. I did pick up a few fallen Karvi flowers to press in my notebook, but I dropped them back, colouring the moist brown earth with a gentle violet and booked my Karvi appointment for 2024 instead.
Peeyush Sekhsaria is an independent Delhi-based consultant and researcher. He is the co-author of Our Tigers Return — Children’s Story Book — The Story of Panna Tiger Reserve (2009-2015)