Kurinji Flower: Blue-Eyed Wonder of Nature and India’s best-kept secret! A flower that grows in 12 years!

Kurinji is a shrub that is also called Strobilantheskunthiana or neelakurinji. Found along the Western Ghats in the Shola forests in South India, the specialty of the flower is that it blooms in 12 years. The rare sightings of the flowers have been rigorously demonstrated in the years 1838, 1850, 1862, 1874, 1886, 1898, 1910, 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006 and 2018 respectively.

Kurinji flower in India

To put things into perspective, the neelakurinji flowers were documented first in 1858 and since then, they have bloomed only for 15 times. The last time the flowers were bloomed in 2006, you witnessed Saddam Hussein being executed by the American Armed Forces, Italy won the football world cup and Pluto was declared a dwarf planet.

In India, there are 250 different types of kurinji flowers and 46 types of neelakurinji in India. The red and maroon kurinji flowers are also available but it is the blue, azure neelakurinji that is widely popular and most-coveted.

The flowers are purple-blue- showering the valley with the sublime purple haze when they bloom. A rarest of the rare sight, which happens once in a blue moon literally!  The blooming of kurinji flowers happens during September-October. People from all over the world come to Neelgiri Hills to see this rarest phenomenon unfolding in front of their eyes. The Neelgiri hills or the Blue Mountains get their name from the blue Kurinji flowers that cover the entire landscape during the period of 12 years.

Kurinji Flower had unusual blooming cycles

once in 12 years - Kurinji Flower

In the world of flowers, such plants with unusual blooming cycles with long intervals are called plietesials. Besides, the blooming cycle, the plant shows other signature characteristics of being one such as gregarious flowering, supra-annual synchronized monocarpy and mast seeding. Mast seeding of Strobilanthes refers to the reproduction of the seeds once during their lifetime.  The synchronized monocarpy implies flowering once in a lifetime and dying after fruiting.

Neelakurinji

Similarly, Strobilanthescuspidatus, other kurinji species, blooms once in every seven years and then subsequently, wilts and dies. The seeds take seven years to sprout, grow and bloom. Each species of kurinji flower takes different time to mature. Neelakurinji takes 12 years to grow and bloom gregariously.

The kurinji flower is a bright coloured, bell-shaped blue flower. In the local language, it is called Kunthiana, referring to the river Kunthi that flows through the Silent Valley National Park in Kerala.  Kurinji flowers grow in the lower expanse of the valley that has no dense tree forest.

The plant of kurinji is a bushy shrub with hairless reddish branches. The leaves are hairless and have a leathery texture. Elliptic in shape, the size of the leaves are 6 x 3 cm.

In the 19th century, Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck first discovered and described the genus, Strobilanthes.The flowering periods of Strobilathes vary from one species to another, as explained in the journals like Indian Foresterand Journal of Bombay Natural History Society.

All species belonging to this genus have an unusual flowering patternranging from annual blooming cycle to the longest with 16-year! The flowers grow in the cluster of 2-5 and have woolly texture. The flowers are hairy and grow in a linear pattern. The lance-shaped petals are almost 2.5 cm long and are attached to the spikes 3-5 cm long.

The plant is usually 25 to 60 cm high and grows at an altitude of 1,300 to 2,200 metres.

Kurinji Honey

The flowers are pollinated by honey bees. The honey collected by these bees is very sweet, nutritious and has high medicinal value.

Butterflies, eastern honeybees and insects love these nectar-filled blue flowers. The nectar collected by the honeybees is regarded to be superlative and healthier. This rarest honey can last for more than 15 years.  The indigenous tribe Paliyan harvests the honey from hives. The tribe calls it ‘liquid gold’ for its value. Unlike other brands of honey available in the market, it is transparent and a bit greenish-yellowish in colour. The taste is unique and so far, it hasn’t been artificially cultivated at all. Besides, the honey is only available when the flowers bloom once in 12 years. For now, you need to wait until 2030 to get some.

Blooming Season for Neelakurinji

Covering the 3,000 hectares of hills in blue-purple carpet and filling the air with intoxicating sweet fragrance, this is a phenomenon that only happens in India!

The most interesting fact about the blooming phenomena of kurinji is that scientists and botanists have failed to arrive at any conclusion that how these flowers manage to adhere to their blooming periods, which range from 3, 7, 12, 17 to even 36 years!

The plants begin flowering in the last phase of Monsoon. By the time rains vanish, the valleys are covered with neelakurinji flowers. India receives the last rains of monsoon season during September and October, so if you want to witness this beauty first-hand, this is when you should visit Munnar or any Southern hill station.

However, with the erratic climate situation, we are dealing with, the blooming of neelakurinji flowers too has been impacted. It is advised to check the monsoon schedule before you make any plans.

Habitat of Kurinji Flowers

Earlier, kurinji flowers used to envelope the entire landscape of Nilgiri Hills, Bababudangiri, Cardamom Hills, Palani Hills and Anamalai Hills. There were times when one could witness the splurge of purple shade throughout the Chandra Drona Hill Range in Chikkamagaluru, Karnataka and Datta Peeta. With private real estate and plantations, their habitat has become limited in the area.  Apart from the Western Ghats, the magical growth of Kurinji flowers can be seen in the layout of Eastern Ghats namely Idukki district, Agali hills, Palakkad, Sanduru Hills in Bellary, Karnataka.

Ootacumend, the Queen of Hills or Ooty is home to 33 varieties of kurinji flowers and is popularly called Blue Mountain for kurinji flowers that cover the landscape.  Apart from Ooty, one can see the blue, bright flowers in their glory in Coonoor, Lamb’s Rock and Kothagiri. 

Thanks to these flowers and their unique blooming period, the sleepy town of Munnar, Kerala made it to the list of “Top Places to Visit in Asia in 2018” by the Lonely Planet.

The Western Ghats and Kurinji Flowers

The Western Ghats wrap in an extraordinaire world of endemic fauna and flora. The alpine climate of plateaus and hills promote the growth and habitat of a wonderful ecosystem above 1,500 meters, known as the Shola. According to S.K. Seth and H.G. Champion, the sholas are the wet temperate stunted evergreen forest. The trees have crooked branches with an abundant supply of moss, lichens, orchids, epiphytes and pteridophyte, making the entire system hygroscopic- the phenomenon of attracting and absorbing water from the surrounding atmosphere. To avoid the high-velocity western monsoon winds, the shola trees have developed interlocking branches. The grasslands, where kurinji plants grow are open meadows and valleys-in the midst of misty hills.

Neelakurinji flowers in western ghats of India

Some botanists and experts refer to this ecological climate of the Himalayan range as “Islands in the Sky” because these habitats are divided by several low-lying inhabitable areas, making the grassland vegetation and fauna of the Southern Western Ghatare unique, highly evolved and nothing like other.

The Flora of British India enlists more than fully detailed species of Strobilanthes species in this region. Similarly, James Sykes Gamble, the noted botanist of the British era has also detailed 46 species in his book Flora of Madras Presidency.

Why Munnar and its Kurinji Flowers are considered to be Exceptional?

The beauty of Munnar kurinji flowers lies in the fact this quaint town in Kerala is their natural habitat. This town has the highest concentration of neelakurinji flowers. One can find these flowers in any Southern hill station but this is what they call home. In Munnar, the flowers, when they grow, are in abundance and at their best – wandering and meandering across the lush hills. Everywhere as far as your sight takes you.

In an offseason, while they are growing, the neelakurinji plants are inconspicuous with other flora. However, comes the blooming season, and the blue-purple neelakurinji flowers steal the limelight and are everywhere. The Munnar valley becomes a bit of heaven veiled in azure shine and decked in blue beauty.

The Paliyan tribal people in Tamil Nadu use the periodicity of the flowers to calculate their age much like the Muthuvan tribes, the original inhabitants of Munnar.

Sighting of Neelakurinji Flowers

Neelakurinji was sighted in the year 2006 after 12 years, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Kurinji flowers of Strobilanthescuspidatus species were again witnessed in their full glory in the year 2016 in Udhagamandalam.

In Munnar, the last mega kurinji bloom was spotted in 2006. In 2017, the purple flowers were recorded in their full glory in Bellary, behind Kumaraswamy temple.

In 2006, the neelakurinji flowers were last bloomed in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The flowers were spotted after 12 years. To commemorate this rare sighting, the state government released a stamp and declared the year as the “Year of Kurinji.”

The flowers were seen again after exact 12 years in South India in the year 2018.

The next flowering season in Munnar will be in the year 2030.

References in literature about Neelakurinji

Since Kurinji flowers have their home in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil literature is rich with their references and similes. In Tamil Nadu, Kurinji is the part and parcel of everyday life. A temple is dedicated to the flower deity called Kurinji AndavarTemple in Kodaikanal. Commonplace references to the deity and kurinji flowers can be found in Kurunthogai, the classic Sangam Age literature of Tamil Country. The blooming season of kurinji is celebrated with small-scale and big-scale festivities among locales, who believe it to be the enduring symbol of secret love and romance. For a tribal community in Munnar, the neelakurinji is the symbol of self-awakening of a woman.

The Tamil Country literature classified the land into five types, which were Kurinji (mountainous), Mullai (forested), Marutham (agricultural), Neithal (coastal) and Paalai (desert) – based on their geographical topography and the plants found in these ecosystems.

In a classic Tamil Literary piece, Kuruntokai- the flower is used indirectly for the poetic verse, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. In Clare Flynn’s novel, Kurinji Flowers, the flowers’ association with clandestine love affair is used as a backdrop to narrate a fictional account of a tragic romance in India of the 1940s.

Conservation of Kurinji Flowers

Kurinji is a free-flowing spirit in its natural habitat. However, as it is happening with the rest of the ecosystem, the surrounding of shola forest and grasslands is now encroached with private housing, tea gardens, and coffee plantations, rendering too much intrusion for the plant to sprout, grow and flower at its will. Similarly, other exotic plant species such as wattle, eucalyptus, and pinus have also shrunk the space further that once belonged to the blue flowers alone. The increase in tourist influx, plastic waste, water depletion has also degraded the supportive ecosystem the flowers enjoyed. As a result, we have only 10 percent of Strobilanthus or neelakurinji flowers left in Kerala.

To save this natural wonder from going into extinction mode, the government has set up a sanctuary called, Kurinjimala Sanctuary inVattavada and Kottakamboor villages of Idukki. This sanctuary spreads across 32 square km and organizes campaigns as well as programs to spread awareness regarding the conservation of the ecosystem. The locals have also dedicated a temple of Hindu God Kartikeya for the preservation of neelakurinji flowers.

Since tourists and other people aren’t much aware of the importance of habitat and natural ecosystem in the growth and blooming of kurinji flowers, the sanctuary committee, nature lovers, students, forest officials and Dindigul District Administration of Kodaikanal has decided to mark the blooming of the flowers with a grand celebration. The committee will put up hoardings and try to create public awareness through a series of an initiative such as competition and cultural activities.

Eravikulam National Park in Munnar, the natural, indigenous site of kurinji flowers is endangered. With floods, invasion of other plants and tourists, this ecosystem of biological diversity has been stripped of its equilibrium. For a flower that spends its entire lifetime on successfully flowering and fruiting, the balance of the ecosystem is of utmost importance. However, with even the slightest of changes, the plant doesn’t respond kindly and as a result, the blooming of flowers suffers and sometimes, they don’t bloom at all and eventually die.

A study published the satellite imagery of the Western Ghats of the last 40 years partially that established that the grassland has reduced up to 66 per cent.   While the timbre plantation has increased 12-folds, the grasslands conducive to the growth of kurinji flowers are losing their essence. And the loss is stark. The grasslands, which were once a dominant part of the ecosystem, now remain fragmented and sparse.

The state governments are also taking initiatives to raise awareness and host gathering to spread knowledge regarding the loss of Neelakurinji flowers and the preservation of its ecosystem.

Why does Neelakurinji flower bloom after 12 years?

It is called survival mechanism in botany. The longer pollination helps the plant to survive through the periodical blooming, natural calamity as well as protect it against the predators. The plant is a favourite of birds and mammals, rendering it vulnerable and at a great threat. In such a scenario, the annual pollination may not be a favourable condition for the plant and leave it more defenceless and weaker. The extended period of blooming is determined by the internal mechanism clock of the plant. The neelakurinji plants, much like bamboo plant, follow the records of daytime, variation in monsoon season and bloom accordingly. Until the kurinji plants are ready, they may or may not bloom at all.

On the recommendations of “Save Kurinji Campaign Council,” the Kerala cabinet has decided to increase the 3200 hectares and redraw the boundaries of the sanctuary. The cabinet also took decisions to appoint a settlement officer and conduct drone surveys on a regular basis. A decision was also taken on the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non-Forest Act 2005 to stop the encroachment of other plant species to steer clear of the ground for kurinji flowers.

Besides, the need to educate people is the must. Responsible tourism is still not a thing in India and because of this, the growth of kurinji flowers gets affected adversely. The influx of tourism affects the environment and natural habitat of the flowers. Be it at the micro-level, it changes the structure of soil and nutrients to a level that it alters the blooming pattern of flowers and affects their pollination cycle.

Around 3,500 people were allowed to visit the Eravikulam National Park in 2006. There were reports that they plucked the flowers and took them home- just for the thrills.  This impact of this encroachment of this will be seen later when the next round of blooming period will occur…or not.  The managing committee of National Park, Munnar Wildlife Division has provisioned a fine of Rs. 2,000 on damaging the plants under Section 22 of the Wildlife Protection Act.

According to the local people in Munnar, the climate of the hill station was cool and a balancing mix of mist and rain- favourable to the growth of neelakurinji flowers. However, it is not anymore. The climate is also rapidly changing and becoming unpredictable, making the flowering of neelakurinji flowers big guesswork.