India is rife with plant discoveries every year. RATNADEEP BANERJI finds Indian botanists often naming their discoveries after people known to them.
The botanical names of yesteryears hardly bore any human imprint in its name. But now the scientific naming of plants and animals called the binomial nomenclature is writ large with human names that too of Indians, of those discovered in India. Indian surnames such as Mahajan, Sharma, Shukla, Yadav, Chakraborty, Nair, Maqsood, Pandurangan, Ravi, Rajasekaran, Gopalkrishna, Vartak , Pradeep, Sasidharan, Sabu, Rawat, Madhusoodanan are being inducted in the scientific lexicon of taxonomy. This is a worldwide trend. Plants have been named after Lady Gaga and Barrack Obama in other countries.
India with its count of 47,791 species accounts for 11.4% of the total recorded plant species of the world. Indian floristic diversity is very fecund and often remains unexplored in the areas of north-east India, Western Ghats. the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands and the Himalayas.
According to the declaration made by Botanical Survey of India in 2015, five new genera, 148 new species and 19 new varieties were discovered the previous year in 2014. Do not feel about the discovered plants to be mostly small ones like fungi and lichens. Among the discovered plants, 42% were the seed plants. The locale of Western Ghats
accounted for inhabiting 22% of the total discovered plants during 2014. Most microbes were discovered in peninsular India while most algae were discovered eastern plains and while most fungi were discovered in the Western Ghats. The discoveries include 16 new trees, 10 species of orchids, 4 new species of genus Musa (banana and plantain) along with 5 new varieties and five species of wild black plum (jamun) were found. A new species of lotus, Nymphaea manipurensis has also been found in Manipur at 726m altitude.
The scientific name consists of two words, first the genus followed by the species. The botanical names accorded to these discovered plants may not be after the Indian discovering botanist but a religious figurehead even. A new species was discovered at Kodachadri in Karnataka. Thereafter the species was named Impatiens aadishankarii after the great sage Jagadguru Sri Adishankaracharya who is believed to have meditated upon the Kodachari Peak. Cycas sainthii found in 2014 is named after Sai Baba from Shirdi. A new species found in Arunachal Pradesh has been named Adinandra kamalae after Kamala Devi, the mother of one of the discoverers.
Curcuma mukhraniae is named after Mukhrani Devi, grandmother of one of the discoverers of the species. Kobresia vibhae discovered from high altitudes of Arunachal Pradesh is named after one of the discoverer’s grandson. Dipankar Ghose, Species Director with WWF feels, ‘Well, naming a species after one’s mother, father or a botanist is justified. It is just like a writer dedicating his book to someone of his choice’. The good part of such naming of plants discovered by Indians in India is that it is mostly not being named after foreign scientists or objects. Dr Paramjit Singh, Director of Botanical Survey of India stresses, ‘Assigning of Indian names eliminate any duplication of name if given in any other country.’
Delphinium hajrae found from Zoji-La-Gumri, Ladakh was named after Dr PK Hajra, a former director of Botanical Survey of India. In 2014 alone, Impatiens paramjitiana discovered in Arunachal Pradesh and Kobresia paramjitii discovered from Sikkim got named after Dr Paramjit Singh, the present director of Botanical Survey of India for his contribution to plant taxonomy. Arisemia madhuannum is named in honour of Dr P.V. Madhusoodanan, a retired professor of botany in Calicut University. Similarly Aristolachia gurinderii named after Gurinderjit Singh Goraya, Brachystelma mahajanii after S.D.Mahajan and Brachystelma vartakii after Dr V.D. Vartak.
Sometimes, Indian botanists do accord names to foreign scientists as well. In 2014, four species of Syzgium were found in Andaman and Kerala. Syzygium hookeri found from Saddle Peak National Park (586m) is named after Sir J.D. Hooker for his great contribution to the flora of British India. Again four species of Musa (banana family) have been discovered. Musa argentii has been named after Dr George Argent, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for his contribution to musaceae (banana family). Glochiodion kingi is named after Sir George King, British botanist and the founder of the Botanical Survey of India. Habenaria osmastonii has been discovered from Rutand Island, Dyer Point, South Nicobar Islands. The species is named after Bertram Beresford Osmaston, who had made the first collection of this species from Rutland Island in South Andaman.
Cycas sainthii and cycas darshii have been discovered and described based on collections made from Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Indian Botanical Garden, Howrah district of West Bengal. The plants are quite big in both height and peripheral size. Why weren’t these two species discovered earlier when they remained in a top botanical garden and yet remained unnoticed by botanists? Dr Paramjit Singh clarifies, ‘‘Discoveries are all accidental. Cycas happen to be living fossils, existing since the days of dinosaurs and have undergone very little evolution. To find a new species in Cycas is really incredulous. Our tools to decipher the right species are becoming more accurate. So we are reclassifying them though the plants as such were spotted but identified in a different way so now in the aftermath of reclassification, it is indeed a discovery.’
Do we still claim to have discovered our planet’s inhabitants? Such discoveries are happening in good numbers, year after year. Much still remains to be discovered in the Indian arboretum. It verily remains a far cry. But all scientific names are jaw breakers and rather intimidating. Scientific names always bear their ruthlessness upon high school-goers. Shall we have aspiring botanists?
The writer is a senior journalist with varied interests, reachable at email@example.com
Brachystelma vartakii is named after Dr V.D. Vartak
Cycas sainathii is named after Sai Baba from Shirdi
Rotala dhaneshiana is named after P. Dhanesh Kumar
Impatiens paramjitiana got named after Dr Paramjit Singh
Eriocaulon gopalakrishnanum is named after K. Gopalkrishna Bhat
Ixora chakraborteyi is named after Dr P Chakraborty