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Botanists are reviving Kovai Manjack, a rare plant with likely medicinal value in the Coimbatore region.

In 2001, when G Kunhikannan joined the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding (IFGTB) in Coimbatore, he noticed a plant with creamy white flowers and orange berries in the botanical garden. He knew it was Kovai Manjack (Sirunaruvili), a plant belonging to the Boraginaceae family, which was once popular in the Coimbatore region. He ate a couple of berries of the shrub, after he saw birds eating them. The yellow-orange berries were sweet even though there was only a little to chew from the tiny ones.

Kovai Manjack was first discovered by Dr K Cherian Jacob on 2 May, 1938, based on the collections from Nanjundapuram, eight km south of Coimbatore, and was later named Cordia diffusa K C Jacob (1944). Many botanists later included this shrub in the list of rare and threatened plants of South India. In 1988, Chandrabose and Nair reported that the Kovai Manjack is on the verge of extinction due to rapid urbanisation and other anthropogenic activities. A recent survey, conducted in 2018 by Arumugam and others, stated that a population of just ten individuals were observed from its natural environment.

Knowing that it is endemic to the region of Coimbatore and critically endangered, Kunhikannan with members of the Centre for Urban Biodiversity Conservation and Education (CUBE), Tamil Nadu Forest Department and Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, reintroduced a couple of individuals of Kovai Manjack around the Singanallur lake, a biodiversity hotspot in Coimbatore. The idea behind the reintroduction of Kovai Manjack is to create awareness among people about our nature and environment. Even though the plant was once common in the region, no one knows about it today. Joseph Reginald of CUBE says lack of knowledge and awareness among people about the plant has resulted in the removal of it in the wild. Recent studies show that the leaves of Kovai Manjack have antioxidant activity and phytochemical constituents.

Recent studies show that the leaves of the Kovai Manjack have antioxidant activity and phytochemical constituents.

Kunhikannan said more studies should be conducted on why the shrub faces extinction. “Seed regeneration is not taking place in the case of Kovai Manjack. There may be various reasons for this. It may be due to lack of pollination, which is considered an essential part of plant reproduction, or disturbance in the habitat,” he said.

Spread over an area of 280 acres, the Singanallur lake in Coimbatore is a biodiversity hotspot. Many environmental organizations have been trying to  create awareness among people about the importance of establishing the Singanallur Lake as a model wetland. It is a home to migratory birds and insects. In 2021, nature enthusiasts discovered a new insect species near Singanallur lake and named it Asphondylia Singanallurensis.

Kunhikannan said Kovai Manjack’s rarity is its importance.

Joseph Reginald said although they surveyed more than 300 acres in the region, they couldn’t find even one single Kovai Manjack plant anywhere. “The habitat of this endemic plant was highly disturbed by human interference, particularly the rapid urbanization and encroachment. Extinction of a species is not good news. Every species is important. There are two individuals of Kovai Manjack in the botanical garden of the Forest College and Research Institute. The two saplings that we planted were regenerated from there,” he said.

Kovai Manjack has berries for birds and white pink flowers for bees. The team has reintroduced two individuals around the Singanallur lake.

Kunhikannan, however, said Kovai Manjack’s rarity is its importance. Citing the medicinal power of Communist Pacha or siam weed (Chromolaena odorata) in Kerala during the outbreak of Chikungunya sometime ago, Kunjikannan said, “the plant (communist pacha) is a weed but it has great medicinal value. People have been using it for curing wounds. Some recent studies claim that it can cure diseases like Chikungunya. Similarly, the utility and importance of Kovai Manjack should be studied in detail. We need to do it fast as they may face extinction anytime,” he said.

Kovai Manjack has berries for birds and white pink flowers for bees. The team has reintroduced two individuals around the Singanallur lake. “ We have been watching the progress of the growth of the saplings that we planted. We are planning to introduce more saplings of Kovai Manjack soon. Maybe ten saplings in the next four months. We chose Singanallur because it is an ideal place with hundreds of flora and fauna inhabiting it together,” said Joseph Reginald.

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