The fragrance of legacy

A rose named EK Janaki Ammal smells sweeter to the Indians than all the other roses.

 |  4-minute read |   14-06-2019
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Not too many know of EK Janaki Ammal — India’s first woman botanist.

Responsible restructuring Calcutta’s Botanical Survey of India in 1951 at the behest of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Janaki is known as the co-author of Chromosome Atlas of All Cultivated Plants — the atlas is considered a bible among plant scientists.

Perhaps in gratitude, appreciation and admiration for the lady who dazzled the world of plant sciences in the 20th century, two renowned plant breeders — Girija and her husband S Viraraghavan (Viru) — have named a rose hybrid that they painstakingly crafted after the scientist.

EK Janaki Ammal — the botanist

Janaki Ammal Edavalath Kakkat was born in Thalassery in modern day Kerala on November 4, 1897. At a time when girls were encouraged to engage in intellectual pursuits veering towards fine arts, Janaki Ammal chose to study botany. After schooling in Thalassery, she moved to Madras where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary's College and an honours degree in botany from Presidency College in 1921.

main_janaki_ammal_wi_061019064842.jpgEK Janaki Ammal: The lady who set the bar so high (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Encouraged by teachers at Presidency College, Janaki Ammal acquired a passion for cytogenetics and went as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow to the University of Michigan to become the first woman to acquire PhD in botany in the USA (1931), and remains one of the few Asian women to be conferred a D Sc (honoris causa) by her alma mater.

We are talking of time and age when women barely went past high school — if at all.

As a geneticist, Janaki Ammal was at the Royal Horticultural Society's Garden Wisley in the early 1950s where she worked on woody plants, including Magnolia.

She spent her later years continuing her research at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore, where she was instrumental in selecting the best varieties for cross-breeding to produce the sweetest sugarcane while also analysing the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India. She passed away on February 7, 1984. 

EK Janaki Ammal — the rose

The rose is a glorious yellow bloom at Kodaikanal where Girija and Viru live in their heritage house with their garden dating back to 1980.

The couple —known among the plant enthusiasts and breeders as the First Couple of rose lovers — was first introduced to Janaki Ammal’s works when Viraraghavan got his copy of the Atlas in the 1960s.Girija — the maternal granddaughter of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the first Vice President and the second President of India — was introduced to the world of roses by her husband.

mainekjanakiammal_ro_061019070317.jpgMeet EK Janaki Ammal: The rose (Photo: John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory, England)

After crafting several roses, the couple stumbled upon a particular rose — pale yellow in colour — that was bred from Rosa clinophyla —  the only tropical rose species in the world, whose centre of natural distribution is in India.

The couple was reportedly delighted when they realised the hues of the yellow rose closely resembled those of the plain sarees the scientist preferred to wear. “We felt very strongly that enough recognition had not been given to this pioneering woman scientist of our country, who practically died in oblivion, despite her mammoth botanical research, we felt that we would like to honour her by naming a rose after her,” Girija says.

And thus the rose was named EK Janaki Ammal.

Girija says that the plant was easy to grow, and would do well in the plains too.  Viraraghavan’s submission to the International Rose Registration suggesting the name for the new hybrid was accepted last year, and the couple now aims to get the rose to the gardens where Janaki Ammal did her work.

It has reached the UK already, and letters have been sent to Michigan University and the Botanical Survey of India.

So the next time you ask “What is in a name?” remember EK Janaki Ammal. And the rose by her name would smell sweeter than the other roses.

Also read: I'm a scientist. I returned from US to find why India can't become a superpower

Writer

Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

Assistant Editor, DailyO

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