Jacaranda in Kathmandu: the “invasive” love affair of a beautiful flower with the capital of Nepal


As the spring season reaches its peak in Kathmandu, the city’s main roads turn purple. Beautiful flowers of tall plants cover the busy asphalt roads and sidewalks, only to get crushed by tire speed and foot haste after a while. But, if you catch the scene before the flowers are trampled by vehicles and people, you’ll feel happy for a while.

There are maybe a few hundred people in Kathmandu who haven’t seen jacaranda flowers. Perhaps the number of people who recognize it as jacaranda is even lower. Apparently, numerous social media posts around this time each year suggest that thousands of Kathmanduites confuse this alien plant with their native shirish (mimosa).

Jacaranda is probably not native to Nepal. So where does it come from? How and why is it so popular in Kathmandu that locals confuse it with other plants? Why are people confused about shirish and jacaranda, and why native shirish are less common here than foreign jacaranda? These interesting questions have no easy answers.

In an attempt to find answers to these curiosities, it seems that the jacaranda is an exotic lover of Kathmandu, which has contributed to the beauty of the city but still threatens it.

The long journey to Kathmandu

File: Jacaranda flowers in Kathmandu

Due to the characteristics of the plant, botanists agree that jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) is native to South America (Brazil, Mexico and Argentina). The plant is common in many Asian, African and European countries nowadays.

Nepali botanists and historians suggest that Rana aristocrats brought this plant to Kathmandu in the late 19and and early 20and centuries. There are, however, different claims about who actually bought it and why they were drawn to this foreign flower when their own country was teeming with exotic flora.

Historian Saurabh, who also has a wide range of knowledge about plants in Nepal, says Sur Shamsher Rana, a family member of former Prime Minister Bir Shamsher, brought the plant to Nepal in the 1920s from Darjeeling. or any hilly region of India. He planted the flower in his private garden near where the Yak and Yeti hotel was later established in Darbarmarg and it was the first jacaranda plant in Nepal. The author in his controversial book Asahamati further writes that it was King Tribhuvan who brought the second jacaranda plant to life in Kathmandu. He planted the flower in front of the south gate of Narayanhiti Palace, opposite the Jai Nepal Cinema Hall today.

On the other hand, Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, whom contemporary Nepalese botanists call the leader of the country’s first generation of plant scientists, estimates that it has already been around 150 years since the plant was first introduced to Nepal. However, he also agrees that members of the Rana family were behind the import. “It is difficult to determine the exact date of importation,” he says, suggesting it must be mid or late 19and century. He shares, “The plant first came to Ranas Gardens and few plants came to the streets later. Jacaranda became common in Kathmandu when the government itself planted flowers around Tundikhel land in the 1970s.”

Feature: Jacaranda blooms in Kathmandu
Feature: Jacaranda blooms in Kathmandu

Many people, including Saurabh, believe that the flowers were planted all over the city in 1961 when Queen Elizabeth II visited Nepal. Shrestha disagrees with the claim that there were only a few jacaranda flowers in Kathmandu then.

But Saurabh believes the road around Tundikhel itself was built before the queen’s trip and that jacaranda, among other plants, was planted at the same time.

Confusion with Shirish

The history of confusion between jacaranda and shirish is as old as the growth of jacaranda in the city.

Of course, there are similarities between the plants as they both belong to the mimosa or albizia family. Shrestha says that the compound leaves of the two plants look alike; that is why botanists have recorded them in the same family.

In the albizia family, the shirish (loosely translated as mimosa in English) is the main type. Shirish itself has dozens of variations and eight of them are available in Nepal, Shrestha informs, adding that they do not have distinct names in Nepali, but are known for their colors (kalo shirish, rato shirish , seto-shirish).

The botanist, however, sees no point in comparing shirish and jacaranda. Jacaranda, at least the one found in Kathmandu, has a distinctive purple color while shirish of such color has never been found in Nepal.

Shrestha “blames” the famous novelist Parijat for creating the confusion. Parijat, in his masterpiece Shirishko Phool, identifies jacaranda for shirish, according to him. “Parijat spent her childhood in Darjeeling where there were lots of shiris plants. Then she came to Kathmandu and thought that jacaranda was also a kind of shirish because they had similar leaves,” says Shrestha, “She then asked essayist Shankar Lamichhane to write an introduction to her novel. Lamichhane did not know what a shirish flower looked like. He asked the Department of Plant Resources officials at the time and they told him that shirish was synonymous with jacaranda.

Feature: Every spring, the streets of Kathmandu look beautiful with jacaranda blossoms lining them.
Feature: Every spring, the streets of Kathmandu look beautiful with jacaranda blossoms lining them.

Saurabh in his article, however, refutes Shrestha’s assertion of Parijat and Lamichhane’s ignorance and innocence. He does not categorically explain how the confusion surfaced.

Shrestha explains that the difficulty in cultivating native shirish is also one of the main reasons for the confusion. While jacaranda can grow on its own without human care and attention, shirish is a garden plant that takes a lot of effort to cultivate. “That’s why it’s easier for people to perceive jacaranda as shirish than to sweat over shirish itself.”

“Our psychological tendency to ignore things that are already available around us and to value new things is also part of the confusion,” he adds, “Otherwise, shirish has many benefits. nitrogen in the soil and make it more fertile.It also has medicinal values.

What’s in a name?

The confusion between shirish and jacaranda has forced the two plants to lose their identity. While only a few Kathmandus recognize the shirish, which is native to their own land and has a revered position in some of Mahakavi Kalidas’ greatest Sanskrit epics, not recognizing the jacaranda itself is also a botanical problem. .

The gardeners working for Ranas did not know which flower it was; that’s why they gave the jacaranda their own name, according to Shrestha. “Most of the gardeners were Newars from Kathmandu and they called it ‘swan chakhunba’ which literally translates to ‘sparrow flower’ because a fallen jacaranda flower resembles a sparrow in shape when you pick it up from the ground. and put it on your palm.

Botanists believe it is wrong to translate plant and species names into new languages ​​because their names contain detailed information about the origins and development of the plant and its characteristics.

“‘What’s in a name’ is a different philosophy with its own value, but in botany names matter and every plant should be named correctly,” says Shrestha, suggesting translating shirish as mimosa. and jacaranda by ‘nilo (blue) shirish’ or ‘chakhuncha swan’ is wrong because it threatens their identity as well as the botanical knowledge acquired so far about the plants.

File: Jacaranda in Kathmandu
File: Jacaranda in Kathmandu

“If the jacaranda weren’t called jacaranda, you couldn’t trace it back to South America and see how it moved to other places around the world.”

Easy dissemination and need for management

Over the past four decades, the spread of jacaranda has been steady in Kathmandu. While its contribution to the aesthetics of the city is significant, environmental scientists fear that the uncontrolled growth of these plants poses a threat to native plants and other aspects of the environment.

“Jacaranda grows fast; it only takes a few years to grow. On the other hand, it can grow in any type of soil,” informs Yadav Upreti, environmental scientist at the Nepal office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Therefore, the plant will spread further in the Kathmandu Valley if we don’t do anything.” His tone suggests that some initiative needs to be taken to control the spread.

Shrestha adds that a changing Kathmandu also plays a role in its rapid growth. “About four decades ago, there were fewer people in Kathmandu, and you could see mists and dewdrops in the morning. Now, with the growth of the number of people and vehicles, the temperature in the city has increased significantly; after that, you rarely find dewdrops on the ground,” he explains, “Kathmandu in its original state was not a suitable place for South American plants like jacaranda. However, recent changes make this a favorable situation.

File: Jacaranda in Kathmandu
File: Jacaranda in Kathmandu

This is why there are jacaranda plants in the dense valley forests like that of Swayambhunath these days, according to Shrestha. While it’s quite beautiful to see purple flowers blooming in green forests, they could drive local plants to extinction, he warns.

Therefore, Shrestha suggests the relevant authorities to initiate a study on the invasive nature of jacaranda and its impact on local plants, as no such research has ever been conducted in Nepal. Its growth can be ‘managed’, not ‘controlled’, while respecting the beauty it adds to the city.

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