Flora Simlensis, containing the identification and description of the plants of Shimla Hills, was published in 1902. The author is Col. Sir Henry Collett, an army officer in the British government in India, who served at various posts, including Afghanistan and Manipur between the 1850s and 1893. During 1885-89, Collett visited Shimla (the capital city of Himachal Pradesh), and collected plants during his walks around the hill-station. His plant collection formed the basis of Flora Simlensis which he completed after his retirement, with assistance from the staff at Kew Botanic Gardens in London.
The British government in India had established plantations of economically important crops across India during the 19th century in order to begin trade in natural products, such as timber, spices, edible oils, natural dyes, nuts, sugar, tea, cotton, silk and medicinal plants. They also established botanical gardens in many cities in India to identify new plants of commercial value – the most famous being the Calcutta Botanic Garden, that is now called the J. C. Bose Indian Botanic Garden, and is managed by the Botanical Survey of India. The British introduced the Linnaean system of classification and binomial nomenclature to India. The British Army officers and Civil Servants (and sometimes their spouses) indulged in the collection of wild specimens of flora and fauna as a hobby, as well as to add to the collections of the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew back in London – the collections are preserved and can, to this day, be accessed under their collectors’ names. They also wrote books and journal articles on Indian flora and fauna. Wallich, Roxburgh, Royle and Falconer ‘botanised’ in north-west India during this time – and Jerdon, Hume, Tickell, Blyth and Hodgson investigated the fauna.
Henry Collett had enlisted in the Bengal Army at the age of 19. Between the 1850s and 1893 (the year he retired), he served at various posts in North-west Frontier Province, Kabul, Manipur, Assam, Upper Burma and Peshawar. He became interested in botany in 1878-79 during the Kuram Valley Expedition in Afghanistan – during which he was accompanied by botanist and Brigade-Surgeon Aitchison. Collett collected plants in Kuram which were used by Aitchison to write ‘Botany of Afghanistan’. Collett was made a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1879.
Around 1885, Collett collected plants of Shimla hills (over a period of 4 years), in an area that includes, along with the area within the municipal limits of Shimla city, Narkanda, Fagu, Kotgarh, Hatu, Mashobra, Mahasu, Shali, and other areas of the Satluj valley. He made a herbarium that he later used in the preparation of Flora Simlensis. He also joined the Simla Naturalists’ Society and wrote for its journal. During 1887-88, Collett was posted at Upper Burma where he collected 725 species of flowering plants and published the list in 1890 in the Journal of the Linnean Society in collaboration with Mr. W.B. Hemsley, the Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew Gardens (The Kew Gardens were founded in 1849; biological prospecting in the British colonies was at its peak in the late 1800s). Henry Collett was knighted in 1893 just before his retirement from the Army.
In 1895, after his retirement, Sir Collett consulted Sir W.T. Thistleton-Dyer, the Director at Kew Gardens, about writing the Flora of Shimla. With assistance from the Kew staff, he spent several years at Kew, honing his skill as a taxonomist, and got the manuscript ready by 1901. After Collett’s sudden demise that year, Mr. Hemsley handled the publishing of the Flora Simlensis which was published the following year. Sir Henry Collett’s Shimla herbarium was then donated by his family to Kew Gardens. Flora Simlensis contains illustrations by Ms. Matilda Smith (a second cousin of Sir Joseph Hooker), who was associated with Kew for almost 50 years. She also illustrated Aitchison’s ‘Botany of Afghanistan’, Hooker’s Icones Plantarum, and many other books. Two plants have been named after her, and she was elected an Associate of the Linnean Society of London.
Sir Henry Collett’s personality has been described as being modest, observant and resolute. As the Flora is primarily a technical document, it doesn’t reveal much about Collett. An essence of Collett’s persona can be had from a paper that he read before the Natural History Society of his former school in Tonbridge, England in 1895. It is titled ‘Notes on Some Plants of the Himalaya’, and provides interesting snippets of information based on his observations of flora in India. He informs the students about the types of plants one is likely to see while travelling in the Himalayan region. He has compared the genera of the Families Ranunculaceae and Compositae (now called Asteraceae) found in Britain and in Himalaya; and explained why the Euphorbiaceae member Euphorbia royaleana looks like a cactus. Collett noted that among the many branches of botany, systematic botany (taxonomy) can be a starting point for people wishing to learn about plants. Collett also wrote ‘Six Weeks in Java’- before retiring and going back to England.
Plant Diversity of Shimla Hills Today
Shimla Hills are home to about 1315 species of flowering plants and 10 species of gymnosperms. Out of these, 432 species are only found in the Himalayas, and about half of these are only found west of Shimla, and extend westward into the Mediterranean region. The other half are affiliated to the Sino-Japanese floral region. The rest of the plant species (approx. 883 species) are derived from the sub-tropical flora of the Indian plains. The 5 most diverse plant families found here are – Asteraceae, Gramineae, Leguminosae, Labiatae and Scrophulariaceae. Some of the other major families are – Umbelliferae, Ranunculaceae, Rosaceae, Euphorbiaceae and Cruciferae. These include trees, woody vines, tall shrubs, bushy plants and herbaceous plants. None of the species are endemic to Shimla hills - they are also represented in the flora of the adjoining districts of the state.
124 species of ferns belonging to 23 genera are also found here. Collett had started collecting the ferns of Shimla and had a herbarium of 71 species, but since the species were so numerous he did not include them in Flora Simlensis. A list of fern species has been included by Hemsley in the introduction to the book. After Gramineae, ferns are the most diverse group of plants in Shimla. Hemsley states that, comparatively, in the British Isles, which have a much larger area than Shimla, only 37 species of 16 genera are found - a testament to the climatic diversity of Shimla, as well as to its location at the cross-road of many floral regions.
Some of the iconic species of Shimla that can be sighted along the city’s nature walks are –
Rhododendron arboreum’s (Family Ericaceae) deep red flowers can be spotted during the early summer and also during the monsoons. The widely scattered trees form an under storey in devdar forests. Locally, the tree is called ‘bras’ and the locals brew a juice concentrate using its flowers. The bamboos are represented by 2 very slender and reed-like species of the genus Arundinaria (Gramineae) – its name derived from Latin arundo, meaning reed. This slender bamboo often grows near streams, and is used by the locals for making baskets and pipes.
Rosaceae members abound near forest streams. The pink, single-whorled Rosa macrophylla can be sighted along the Flowerdale Road stream in Chhota Shimla. Ophiopogon intermedius (Asparagaceae) found on the forest floor and Roscoea procera (Zingiberaceae) on grassy slopes, are the other delicate and useful species found in this area.
In the under storey of the devdar forest, two plants stand out due to their unusual flowers. One of them is Arisaema sp. (Araceae) with its flowers hidden and growing at the base of a long tail-like spadix that protrudes out of a leafy bract or spathe enclosing it. Its bright red berries are conspicuous among the green foliage of the forest floor. Hedychium spicatum (Zingiberaceae) has long ribbon-like leaves resembling those of ginger, and has white and orange flowers. It is used as a medicinal plant and as a source of perfume. Mr. J. S. Gamble (Director of Forest School, Dehradun) noted in the introduction to Flora Simlensis, “The herbaceous vegetation of Simla is remarkable for containing many species of great beauty ..............it shows the aspect of a wild garden which would be the despair of a garden lover to imitate.”
The Orchidaceae of Shimla is all terrestrial, epiphytic orchids are not found here. Out of the 38 species of orchids mentioned in Flora Simlensis, I have found only 3 species during my walks, all belonging to the genus Habenaria. One of them (Habenaria intermedia) was photographed in the nearby Water Catchment Area Sanctuary growing along the road amid dense foliage on the forest floor. Habenaria edgeworthii (suspected new sub-species H. e. shananensis) and H. pectinata grow in the open grassy slopes adjoining the Shanan Road in Chhota Shimla. H. edgeworthii flowers are curiously shaped like an elephant’s head and trunk. The orchids are pollinated either by butterfly or moth species. The name Habenaria is derived from the Latin habena, a rein, referring to the long stigmatic arms of the flowers.
Awareness about native plants serves many purposes – conservation, a tool for land-use decisions, eco-tourism, and an appreciation of our diversity
Before Shimla became the Summer Capital of the British government in India, and later the capital city of Himachal Pradesh, it was densely forested - inhabited by black bears, wild boars, barking deer, leopards and pheasants. The rulers of the surrounding areas, accompanied by the British officials, indulged in the sport of hunting in these forests. The grassy slopes of the area were used as grazing pastures by shepherds for their flocks of sheep and goats. The medicine-men from the local villages extracted several medicinal plants from the forest, and the local people relied completely on the medicinal herbs for curing all types of health conditions. Several patches of the original devdar forest are now found in the city within its Green Belt, a zone protected by a municipal notification. Kalij pheasants, leopards, leopard cats and barking deer are occasionally spotted, and macaques and langurs can be seen in the vicinity of human habitations.
There are several villages and agricultural fields within the municipal limits of Shimla, and bird species associated with rural landscapes can also be seen here. The popularity of bird-watching tours is increasing in the country, and a hill-station with a city forest and a wildlife sanctuary just outside its city-limits is the perfect destination for birding. For bird identification, ‘The Common Birds of Simla’ by A.E. Jones, edited and reprinted by Somesh Goyal (the Founder President of a Shimla-based NGO called Himachal Birds), and ‘Birds of Kangra’ by Jan Willem den Besten, are useful.
The National Biodiversity Board’s ‘People’s Biodiversity Register’ program aims to collate information about traditional knowledge associated with the use of natural resources for each state in India, at the Panchayat and municipal level. This includes the use of medicinal herbs, information about which are passed down from one generation of medicine-men to the next, there being no written records of the species used and the methods of use. One study has found 63 economically useful plant species from Shimla hills that are reported to be used in 126 medical conditions in humans, as well as for wood, fodder, fibre, dyes, flavouring agents, fruits, vegetables, spices, insecticide, flea repellent, terpenes, etc. According to the World Health Organisation, 80% of the world’s population still relies on plant-based medicines. There is a need to conserve the traditional knowledge about plants, and to popularise natural medicines and natural products such as cosmetics, soaps, beverages, etc among the younger generations.
The devdar forest in Shimla has shrunk due to construction activities. Many of the natural streams are polluted and their biodiversity-rich banks buried under debris. The 74th Amendment to the Constitution in 1992 has placed the responsibility of protecting a city’s environment on the Urban Local Bodies, and mechanisms - such as notifications for Green Belts, restricting construction activities near streams, monitoring the flora and fauna of urban forests, developing an outreach program for the city dwellers to educate them about the city’s underlying ecology, and sensitizing them to make sustainable choices – have to be put into action. The government has plans to decongest the city by developing satellite towns.
For permission to publish this article, you can contact Anita at 011-45601687.
Anita Chauhan is a science writer based in Delhi. She blogs at www.pheasantsoftheworld.blogspot.com and www.flickr.com/photos/anitawpa. She has been photo-documenting the biodiversity of Shimla hills since 2009, and is planning to write a photographic identification guide for the native plants of Shimla.