Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes sp.) is a small herb that flowers gregariously once in 12 years in regions of the Western Ghats like Bababudan Hills, Chikmagalur, Nilgiris, and other parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu too. When the Neelakurinji blooms, entire grasslands around the shola forests of Anamalai, Madhumalai, Ooty, Munnar, and Idukki attain the look of a blue carpet. Hence the name Neelagiri (blue mounatain) coined for the entire biosphere; such is the popularity of Neelakurinji.
The eastern plains of Karnataka, in the Deccan Plateau, have more hidden biodiversity wonders than one can imagine. Even as Bellary slowly recovers from the nightmarish mining, and the scars on Sandur’s hills heal, nature regales us with sudden surprises. After a span of 12 years, a rare phenomenon occurred in the upper ridges of Sandur Hills in 2017 – the blooming of a small shrub (of the same genus as Neelakurinji), Strobilanthes callosa (also known as Carvia callosa or Karvy).
In the rest of this article, this Strobilanthes sp. from Sandur has been referred to as Neelakurinji, which is how it is most commonly identified.
This massive blooming of Strobilanthes sp. in the Western Ghats is a normal phenomenon. But when the same blooming happens in the eastern plains of Karnataka, it signifies something special. The Sandur Hills stand out of the rest of the Deccan Plateau, which is otherwise well known for arid plains of black cotton soil and grasslands. The 48-kilometre stretch of the spindle-shaped Sandur Hill range starts from the Tungabhadra Reservoir in Hospet Taluk, and ends at Swamihalli in Sandur Taluk. The long and tall mountain range plays a vital role in impacting the climate of north-eastern Karnataka. The thick dry-deciduous forests in the plains and on the spindle-shaped hill range are entirely different from the rest of the ecosystem of the plains of the Deccan Plateau.
The higher altitude of Sandur plays a vital role in the distribution of the flora and fauna of this region. According to the Gazetteer of Bellary, the hill above the famous Kumaraswamy Temple is 1036 metres above sea level in the southern part of Sandur, and Ramagada in the northern part is 992 metres above sea level. The gregarious blossoming of Neelakurinji is seen in exactly these two places. There are many more areas in the long mountain range that need to be explored and documented. As the elevation increases, the biodiversity also differs. Some higher altitude flowers like Impatiens lawii, Clerodendrum serratum, Zinnia elegans etc. are also widespread in the crests of the Sandur Hills.
Neelakurinji, a shrub (and herb) that grows 1 to 3 feet tall, bears bluish-purple flowers in September or October, depending upon the region. The plant displays the peculiar behaviour of reproduction by flowering once in its lifetime, and then dying. This phenomenon of mass seeding is called ‘masting’, which is also seen amongst bamboo, which flower and die at 3 to 150 years of their life, based on species’ differences. These kinds of plants are called ‘plietesials’. There are about 250 species of Strobilanthes in the world and about 46 species are found in India. Different species of Strobilanthes have different flowering intervals, in which the plants’ biological clocks trigger them to flower en masse. In the days of yore, people from tribes related the blooming of Neelakurinji to their age.
The gregarious blooming of Neelakurinji is found near Kumaraswamy temple, near Ramgada village in Ramanamalai forest and some other parts of Sandur Hills. It is observed that the shrubs grow on slanting slopes near the crests of mountain ranges, from where rain water flows downwards. As September is the month of the highest rainfall in Bellary District, the blooming occurs during this period. The mild fragrance of the flowers tantalises visitors; honeybees and other insects also throng them to get their share of nectar. It is said that the honey harvested in the vicinity of flowering Neelakurinji is delicious, with a special aroma.
When Mahatma Gandhi visited Sandur in September 1934, seeing the greenery and beauty of its forests, he is believed to have exclaimed “See Sandur in September.” Probably, the Neelakurinji might have bloomed then. The bloom that occurred in September 2005 in Sandur was reported by local journalists in newspapers. Some stray blooming may also occur this year, on the heels of last year’s spectacle, but it cannot be predicted with certainty. The next massive blooming Neelakurinji is likely to occur in September 2029. Nature enthusiasts – take note and feast your eyes!