How Western Ghats shaped the life of scientist EK Janaki Ammal

The Royal Horticultural Society in England has named a variety of Magnolia Kobus after Indian botanist EK Janaki Ammal.

Magnolia Kobus is a deciduous tree which produces cup-shaped white flowers in the spring. In the 1950s, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in Wisley, England named a variety of Magnolia Kobus after EK Janaki Ammal (1897-1984), the great Indian botanist, as a tribute to her work on these plants. Called Magnolia Kobus ‘Janaki Ammal’, the trees in the Kew Gardens of RHS still produce flowers, but the nomad botanist remains an unsung heroine in her own country.

Born in 1897, Janaki grew up in a progressive Thiyya family in Kerala’s Thalassery. Using cytogenetics, agronomy, plant geography, geology, history and anthropology together with a sound knowledge of the cultural uses of plants, Janaki mapped the origin and evolution of cultivated plants across space and time. Widely travelled across the world, Janaki broke caste and gender barriers with her great scientific insights. Even though Janaki kept on travelling from one place to the other in search of plants, the Western Ghats, according to scholar Savithri Preetha Nair, remained the preferred spot in Janaki Ammal’s life.

Janaki’s working life intersected with several significant historical events. The rise of Nazi Germany and World War II, the struggle for Indian independence, the science movement, the green revolution, the dawn of environmentalism and the protest movement against a proposed hydro-electric project in the Silent Valley in the Western Ghats in the 1970s and 1980s.

Born in 1897, Janaki grew up in a progressive Thiyya family in Kerala’s Thalassery.
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