Breathing new life

Print edition : May 19, 2006

Land surrounding the government hospital in Visakhapatnam has been turned into a unique biodiversity park.

Founders of the society, M. Rama Murty and wife Mangathayi (standing), with students in the biodiversity park.-

THE symphonic twitter of birds greets visitors and butterflies in their myriad hues, insects and a host of plant species complete the picture of what is a vibrant bio-diversity park on six acres in the heart of Visakhapatnam. Situated on the premises of a government hospital, the Rani Chandramani Devi Hospital in Peda Waltair, the park houses more than 1,200 species of plants.

It became a reality three years ago when a stretch of barren land belonging to the hospital, mostly used to dump garbage, was transformed into a lush-green expanse that matched the expectations of the man who dreamt of it - Dr. M. Rama Murty, a Lecturer in Zoology at the B.V.K. College in the city. The Dolphin Nature Conservation Society (DNCS), which he along with his wife Mangathayi founded in 2001 and whose executive members are all students, took on the challenge of converting the hospital grounds into a colourful mosaic of rare plants and flowers that attract a host of insect species.

A voluntary organisation run by the students and teachers of different colleges in the city, the DNCS is committed to the cause of nature conservation and environmental protection; its main activities include wildlife conservation and awareness, tree planting and maintenance, and environmental awareness and protection. Its core members are G. Prudhvi Raj, G.S. Kiran, Dr. Krishna Swetha, Y. Srinivas, M. Giridhar, Harish Singh, K. Mamata, and the students of B.V.K. College.

Sarpagandha, a medicinal plant used in the treatment of high blood pressure and various central nervous system disorders.-

The society adopted the hospital for tree plantation in 2002 and subsequently got the District Collector's permission to develop a bio-diversity park on its premises. In the first phase, the Superintendent of RCD Hospital permitted the society to develop a garden in front of the hospital. In 2003, Rama Murty put forth his grand idea to the hospital authorities. Initially, they gave DNCS half acre of land. "The then District Collector, Sunil Sharma, who was also the Chairman of RCD Hospital Development Committee, appreciated our work and agreed to give us the additional land," said Rama Murty. The RCD hospital is situated on land donated by Rani Chandramani Devi (1906-57), the Rani of Chemudu.

"The park is our endeavour to present a platform for students and scholars to bridge the gap between the modern and traditional methods of medicine by highlighting the importance of medicinal plants," said Rama Murty. The hospital grounds proved ideal to realise the concept of a space dedicated to educational purposes and one that would awaken sensitivity to the environment. Forest officials, botanists and the hospital authorities extended their full support to DNCS to develop the park.

The park is a boon for inpatients, who are there for periods ranging from three to five months. The hospital specialises in the treatment of polio, congenital deformities and mental retardation in children and attends to more than 600 patients every month from across the country. "'The patients need special care and treatment such as speech and occupational therapy. The park facilitates the process by giving them mental relaxation," said Dr. N. Subrahmanyam, Superintendent of the hospital.

Salvia Coccinea, a native of North America, used to cure skin diseases.-

"Bio-diversity parks are the only way to foster knowledge about our vast forest wealth," said Prof. Hara Sreeramulu of Dr. V.S. Krishna Government College and an adviser of DNCS. Though over 49,000 plant species have been identified all over the world, 70 per cent of forest plant species still remain unidentified, he added.

Ashish Kothari, a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental research group, has a different view. "Biodiversity needs to be conserved where it has grown naturally. Creating new and artificial biodiversity parks is not going to help in overall conservation. However, if created imaginatively and using indigenous species, it could help in generating awareness."

The park nurtures 350 varieties of ornamental plants, 600 types of medicinal and aromatic plants, 10 species of aquatic plants, 15 varieties of orchids, 30 palm groves and 10 bamboo groves. There are also about 25 foreign plant species from countries such as Holland, the United States and Australia.

A yellow bell flower-

A green house (poly-net) space is being created for rare and delicate plants that survive only in low temperatures and specific conditions. "We also have plans to develop an energy park by erecting models for generating power from solar energy," said Rama Murty.

The park has a fascinating spread of rare medicinal plants that can unveil a whole new world of possibilities for traditional therapeutic practice. Among them are Sarpagandha (Rauvolfia serpentina), Vasa (Acorus calamus), Jalabrahmi (Bacopa monnieri) and Kevukanda (Costus speciosus). These plants have properties that help reduce blood pressure, prevent allergies, heal bone fractures and have anti-cancerous properties. "On account of exploitation of the medicinal plant cover, many species have become rare," said Prof. M. Venkaiah, a botanist and chief adviser of DNCS.

India has more than 15,000 of the world's known medicinal plant species. Almost 90 per cent of them are found in forest habitats.

Strawberries, a delicious relative of the rose family famous for its rich mineral content.-

A unique plant species found in the park is Ginkgo biloba - a living fossil and a rare gymnosperm that belongs to the age of the dinosaurs. Buddhist monasteries in China and Japan had it on their premises since it was considered a `sacred tree'. The plant is said to have time-tested medicinal properties to cure disorientation, depression, memory loss and vertigo.

Another species in the park, Tinospora cordifolio, is said to be used in Ayurvedic preparations for treatment of debilitating ailments, limited mobility and digestion-related problems. Modern research suggests that the herb protects against the damaging effects of cancer therapy and helps modulate the antioxidant and immune system activities. It is also considered to be a `detoxifying herb' because of its ability to scavenge free radicals and heavy metals, calm adverse immune reactions that produce inflammation, and alleviate symptoms of liver toxicity, hepatitis and liver fibrosis.

Ginkgo biloba, a rare gymnosperm belonging to the Age of Dinosaurs.-

The strong aromatic properties of Magabeera (Anisomeles malabarica) attract bees and butterflies. This plant has medicinal properties that are used to cure skin and respiratory diseases.

The elephant creeper (Argyreia nervosa) is a perennial climbing vine. Native to the subcontinent and introduced in numerous areas worldwide, including Hawaii, Africa and the Caribbean, it can be invasive, although it is prized for its aesthetic value. The seeds of the plant are sometimes used as a legally obtainable hallucinogen, though it is illegal to consume them. The leaves of the plant are used to treat wounds and boils.

Gloriosa superba, a climbing plant with brilliant wavy-edged red flowers, is an attention-grabber at the park. It is a fast disappearing species now because of its over-exploitation for its medicinal properties. From time immemorial, the tuberous rhizome was used in medicines to treat abdominal pain, chronic ulcers and for its anti-helmintic (destroying intestinal worms) properties. However, chemical research has shown that all parts of this plant are poisonous and ingestion could be fatal.

The Elephant Creeper, the leaves of which are used to treat wounds and boils.-

The root of Sarpagandha has high alkaloid concentration and is used as a sedative. It is also used in the treatment of high blood pressure and disorders of the central nervous system such as psychosis, schizophrenia, insanity, insomnia, and epilepsy.

A native of North America, Salvia coccinea, with its tiny red blossoms, is eye-catching. Its leaves are used to cure skin diseases.

The ornamental and flowering plants at the park come in all possible colours and sizes. There are tulips, lilies, daffodils and hyacinths from the Royal Netherlands Embassy in New Delhi. Rama Murty is confident that such exotic plants will thrive well once the green house is ready.

Verbena Blooms at the park.-

Then there is the Agave Americana, or century plant (so called because of the long time it takes to flower), a native of tropical America. Its leaf wears a multi-coloured look and has a white or yellow stripe along the margins or in the centre from base to apex.

The `mother-of-millions' (Kalanchoe gastonis) reminds one of a grand chandelier. As the name suggests, the cup-and-saucer plant (Holmskioldia sanguinea) has a distinct look. As for `match-me-if-you-can' (Acalypha wilkesiana), no two leaves of the plant are identical.

Jatropha Pandurifolia, a favourite haunt of bees.-

The exotic strawberries are an utter delight and its rich mineral content perhaps explains why Roman philosopher Lucius Apuleius sang praises of its healing properties, the ancient Chinese ate it to cure hangovers, and the French worked it into love potions. This delicious relative of the rose family has enchanted ancient civilisations across Asia, Europe and the Americas. "It needs a cool climate to survive," said Rama Murty.

A favourite haunt of bees and other insects is Jatropha pandurifolia, an ornamental plant that is a native of the West Indies. The plant, with its deep green foliage and scarlet blooms, flowers round the year.

A swallow-TAIL butterfly.-

The DNCS is trying to acquire another 10 acres of vacant land to expand the park, which runs on the liberal contribution of its student-members and the support of environmentalists and botanists.

Powder Puff, one of the flowering plant species at the park.-

Said Rama Murty: "If the government comes forward to provide financial assistance, we can work wonders and transform the entire area into a bigger botanical park that will be a role model for other government hospitals across the country."

Beetles Mating. The park attracts a host of insect species.-

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