BOTANICAL EXPLORATION AND FLORISTIC STUDIES IN ASSAM

BOTANICAL EXPLORATION AND FLORISTIC STUDIES IN ASSAM

Assam has been a centre of classical botanical collections. It has attracted the attention of a number of Botanists, both professionals and amateurs. Francis Buchanan (later in 1820 Hamilton) pioneered the botanical collection around Guwahati in 1808 -1809. Wild growing tea plant in Assam was reported by Robert Bruce in 1823 from an area known as ‘Bisa’ in former Lakhimpur Frontier Tract near Burhi Dihing River. David Scott, the Governor General’s Agent of North East Frontier in 1826 got a leafy twig from Manipur and it was identified by N. Wallich as Camella scottiana with a question mark. Col. Lister made a good collection of plants during 1828 -1832 between Cherrapunji and Guwahati. Latter Francies Jenkins during his stay at Guwahati from 1831 to 1854 as the Governor General Agent, along with his collector Simons, gathered a number of plants from various places chiefly around Brahmaputra Valley and the Mikir Hills (now Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao). He got a twig of wild tea through Charles Alexander Bruce, the younger brother of Robert Bruce and Captain Andrew Charlton. Griffith identified the plant as Camellia theifera Griff. in 1834 but the publication was made in 1854. The up to date nomenclature of the true tea plant is Camellia sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze. This led to the formation of a tea delegation of East India Company headed by N. Wallich (surgeon) with his associates W. Griffith (surgeon) and John McClelland (soil chemist) to study the areas of tea growing in the wild and the possibility of its cultivation in Assam. They started the journey from Calcutta on 31st August 1835 by boat and reached Sadiya on 16th January 1836 collecting plants on the way. They also made short trips to Dibrugarh and Jorhat. Griffith’s contribution was more than his associates who stayed at Sadiya till February, 1837, chiefly collecting in the vicinity of Sadiya. Griffith published an excellent treatise in 1838 entitled “The tract producing indigenous Tea plant” in Transactions of Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India Vol. V. Griffith revisited the region in 1838 including the present Kamrup district. He with his associates and personal collectors collected as many as 2500 species. Of these, major collection was from Assam and some from present day Meghalaya and Nagaland and the Mishimi hills of erstwhile NEFA (now in Arunachal Pradesh). This is in brief the history of the earliest botanical works in Assam.

Many other explorers enriched the collection of plant species in the years that followed. Notable amongst them are John White (a sub-assistant under Jenkins) and Masters during 1843 -1873 in Golaghat, Nagaon and Sadiya. Masters in 1844, 1845, 1846 Hanny in 1845, Gammie in 1895 and J.D. Hooker & T. Thomson made a large number of collections from the Khasi Hills in 1850 staying nearly 6 months in the region. Falconer and his collectors (1852 -1854) from Mikir Hills; R.L. Keenan (1872 -1873) and also Klein and Prazer from Cachar, Peal from Sibsagar contributed to the sporadic collection. Charles Baron Clark, a Mathematician who came to India in 1866, joined as a Lecturer in Presidency College, Calcutta also made collection tours to Khasi & Jayantia Hills in 1866, 1872 and 1877. Later as Inspector of Schools in Assam during 1883 -1887, he extensively toured Shillong and its neighbouring areas. In October – November 1885 he made valuable collections in several areas of Golaghat, Kohima and Manipur. I.H. Burkill (1965) has provided an authentic list of the pioneer plant explorers of Assam.

Gustav Mann, the first Conservator of Forests of Assam during 1863 -1881 (1891?), made splendid collections from different parts for a detailed knowledge of the Flora of Assam. He was the first to conceive the idea of the establishment of Forest Herbarium of Assam for the preservation of voucher specimens mounted on writing paper only and deposited a fairly large number of collections. G. Watt in 1882 and 1883 collected plants from Golaghat and Cachar.

All the above mentioned collectors and others had made valuable contribution to the study of the Flora of Assam. However, most of the specimens were sent to the Kew Herbarium, London, but a few duplicates left for Sibpore Herbarium. Based on these collections and explorations, different workers have published their floristic accounts on the plants of Assam. Notable amongst them were F. Buchanan Hamilton (1820), W. Roxburgh (1820, 1824, 1832), W. Robinson (1841), W. Griffith (1834, 1838, 1847), J.D. Hooker (1854) and J.D. Hooker & T. Thomson (1855). Sir J. D. Hooker (1872 – 1897) had included all these materials including the area of collection, in his monumental publication in 7 volumes of the Flora of British India. The localities referred in this work are not precise and  mentioned as Upper Assam, Lower Assam, Assam plains, Brahmaputra Valley or Surma Valley (the major portion of Sylhet district is now in Bangladesh) for the plain areas and  on the other hand the hilly regions are termed as Mikir Hills and so on. The establishment of Botanical Survey of India on 13th February 1890 under the leadership of George King, the First Director, activated the exploration work in different parts of India including that of Assam. G.A. Gammie made collections in the months of March and April in 1894 in areas of erstwhile Lakhimpur district centred around the present Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts and published his works in 1895. In early part of the 20th century Meebold(1906 and 1907) collected plants from areas of Golaghat, Kohima and Manipur. H.G. Carter and D.N. Carter made 2 tours in spring and autumn in 1915 and collected specimens from different places of erstwhile Lakhimpur district and published their account in the records of Botanical Survey of India entitled Useful Plants of the district of Lakhimpur in Assam in 1895.

At the initiative of Sir Archdale Earle, the then Chief Commissioner of Assam, U.N. Kanjilal joined the Forest Service of Assam. During his tenure (1906 -1928), he made extensive and intensive collections from most parts of erstwhile Assam and also engaged most of the forest staff members spread over the length and breadth of the region with a view to publishing the Flora of Assam. He has to his credit in establishing the Assam Forest Herbarium in 1927 as Extra- Deputy Conservator of Forest of Assam. Even after retirement, he worked on the manuscripts of the First Volume of the Flora of Assam but expired on 25th October 1928, before its publication. His monumental collections, mostly identified or confirmed at Sibpore Herbarium, and invaluable elaborate field notes and drafts have remained assets to his successors. The progress of the Flora Project of Assam slowed down till P.C. Kanjilal – Deputy Conservator of Forest, U.P. was invited to complete the work. He had also made exhaustive collections from various parts of Assam and enriched the Herbarium to 40000 specimens with the assistance of workers like G.K. Deka, S.R. Sharma, D. N. Pal, R. Sunar, H. K. Deka, S.R. Talukdar, M. R. Dhar, R.N. Dey, D.N. Kalita, B.B. Shyam and others. P.C. Kanjilal before leaving Assam completed the final draft and described a few Families of Monochlamydae. Later, A. Das – the Silviculturist and Botanical Forests Officer took over the responsibility in 1931 and publication was completed between 1934 and 1940. The Flora of Assam stands out as the last Regional Flora of India authored by Indians before Independence.

During the publication of the Flora of Assam, N.L. Bor came as Political Officer in the Naga Hills and Aka Hills (Kameng). He took keen interest in Grasses and started collecting since 1936 when he became the Botanical Forest Officer. He extensively traveled most parts of erstwhile Assam collecting grasses, took all his collections and compared with earlier collections at Kew and published the 5th volume of the Flora of Assam, only on Gramineae of Monocotyledons in 1940. From 1937 to 1948 R.N. De, M.M. Srinivasan, M. L. Saikia (all Sylviculturists), S.R. Sharma and G.K. Deka made substantial collections for the Forest Herbarium. Thereafter, there was negligible collection till the establishment of Botanical Survey of India on 9th August 1956 with its Regional Head Quarters in Shillong. Mr. M.C. Jacob, the then Chief Conservator of Forests, played a key role in transferring the Assam Forest Herbarium with its staff members to the newly established Botanical Survey of India. With its 5 volumes of Flora of Assam covering 3431 species including a few varieties of plants, the Forest Department of Assam has made splendid contribution towards the floristic study of Assam. But the work of the Forest Botanist cannot be described as exhaustive or complete as the work includes mainly the flowering plants and that too only the woody ones, which have much value in Forestry. Only sporadic references have been made to the herbaceous plants. But it connotes a landmark in the history of Botanical studies in Assam by Indian Botanists. Except for the publication of Gramineae (Poaceae) in Flora of Assam (Vol.-V) by Bor (1940), other Monocotyledonous families remained unrecorded.

The Botanical Survey of India, Eastern Circle, was set up in Shillong in 1956. It took over the charge of Assam Forest Herbarium on 8th August 1956. Thereafter, several members of the organization have undertaken exploration work and collected all types of plants from different parts of North Eastern Region  of India with the aim of completing the Flora of Assam. Scrutiny of literature and herbarium specimens reveal that plant collectors from BSI have visited only certain selected parts of Assam and that  too  not covering  all the seasons of the year. According to M.S. Swaminathan and J. Joseph (1985) personals from BSI could study only 25 % of Flora of Assam.  However, notable among the collectors from BSI who have enriched the Assam Forest Herbarium, now called “Kanjilal Herbarium” (ASSAM), are R.S. Rao, G. Panigrahi, D.B. Deb, A.S. Rao, S. Chowdhury, S.K. Jain, S.K. Kakati, L. C. Rabha, D.N. Verma, S. Das, R.B. Majumdar and P.K. Hajra. They have published their results of collection trips outlining the vegetation and enumerated the species mainly covering Hill States of North East India but sporadically of plain areas of Assam. The contributions made by Panigrahi (1960, 65); R.S. Rao & Panigrahi (1961); Chowdhury (1961); Naik & Panigrahi (1962); Kar & Panigrahi (1963); Kataki & Panigrahi (1964) ; Naik ( 1965); A.S. Rao & Rabha (1966); Panigrahi & Kar (1967); A.S. Rao (1969, 70, 74,770);  A.S. Rao & Rabha (1966); Panigrahi & Kar (1967); A.S. Rao (1969, 70,74,77); A.S.Rao & Deori (1967); A.S. Rao & Hajra (1977); Jain & Hajra (1975a, b, 1978); Borthakur & Hajra (1976); Hajra (1978, 1980); Majumdar (1980, 1983) and Kataki & Barua (1989) are worth mentioning. On the other hand, Panigrahi (1960); Panigrahi & Chowdhury (1961, 1962); Panigrahi & Patnaik (9161, 1968) have made valuable contribution to the study of Fern allies and Ferns of North East India.

A.S. Rao  & D. M. Verma (1972 -1979, 1982) have bought out a series of publications to complete the Monocot Flora of Assam (undivided Assam) but could not do so as there are a number of families of Monocotyledons still left out, including the Orchidaceae. U. Shukla had published The Grasses of North Eastern India in 1996. As such the Monocot Flora of Assam still remains incomplete.

The work on Taxonomic and Floristic research of present Assam was initiated by Dr. S. Chowdhury, the retired Head & Professor of Botany, Gauhati University in 1967. Prof. Chowdhury has developed and enriched the Herbarium of the Department and about 10,000 specimens collected from almost all the parts of Assam were housed at the time of his retirement. Apart from him, remarkable contributions exist for development of the Herbarium by many of the faculty members, students and Research Scholars engaged in floristic studies of the Department. The Taxonomy Laboratory of the Department of Botany is now internationally recognized as a Centre for Taxonomic Research.

Prof. Chowdhury has made notable contribution highlighting the plant resources of Assam and its novelties in National and International Journals. He discovered several species of plants new to science and also recorded a number of plants previously unknown from areas within Assam [cf. Chowdhury 1961, 1974a, b, 1982, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1993 a,b, 1996 and Chowdhury, Baruah & Majumdar (1970), Chowdhury, Baruah & Baruah (1971), Chowdhury & Phukan (1974), Chowdhury & Baruah (1976), Chowdhury & Singh (1991, 1992), Chowdhury, Kakati & Baruah (1974, 1978); Handique, Medhi, Goswami, Goswami & Choudhury (1987); Sarkar, Handique, Goswami, Goswami & Chowdhury (1989); Baruah, Choudhury & Neog (1988); Chakraborty, Prasad & Chowdhury (1990); Goswami & Chowdhury (1990); Prasad, Majumdar, Chowdhury & Chakrabarty (1992); Nath & Choudhury (1994); Malakar & Chowdhury (1997); Singh & Chowdhury (1997); Dutta Chowdhury & Chowdhury (1997)]. Novelties include 3 new species of orchids discovered in the mainland of Assam viz., Dendrobium assamicum Chowdhury (1988), Eulopia kamarupa Chowdhury (1993) and Zeuxine debrajiana Chowdhury (1996). Other new species described by him with associates from North East Region are Oberonia sulcata Joseph & Chowdhury (1966), Katherinea navicularis Balakr. & Chowdhury (1996), Agapetes bhutanica Balakr. & Chowdhury (1966), Bulbophyllum leopardianum var. tuberculatum Balakr. & Chowdhury (1967) and Arthromeris jarettii Sastry & Chowdhury (1972).

Over the years, floristic studies in Assam have made steady progress. Prof. S. Chowdhury and his students carried out good number floristic and ethnobotanical studies. Most of his students have developed herbaria in different Colleges of Assam. Besides him there are many pioneer workers who have contributed a lot in regard to the study of flora of Assam in the recent years. Prof. S.K. Borthakur is another such name who had identified and rediscovered many new species in his botanical works. Begonia xanthium Hook was rediscovered by him along with Amad Uddin, S. Phukan. Four new species of Bambusa from Assam were discovered by C. Barooah and S.K. Bothakur. Ranjit Daimary, S. Phukan, S.K. Borthakurs’ recollection of Ariopsis peltata Nimmo from Assam, two new species of Glochidion J.R. & G. Forst. (Euphorbiaceae)  identified from Assam by P.C. Kalita & S.K. Borthakur. Besides, he had also guided many research scholars in floristic works of different places of Assam. Works of M. Islam on – A contribution to the flora of the greatest river Island Majuli, the Flora of Majuli, the aquatic and marshland flora of Assam are of immense importance in regard to the floristic study of Assam. Other notable contributions to the floristic study of Assam are Studies on the systematic of Orchids in the Brahmaputra valley, Assam by Bhabananda Baruah, Bamboos of Assam- Taxonomy and Distribution by C. Barooah & S.K. Borthakur, Floristic Composition of Tinsukia District of Assam - A systematic study by Apurba  Bhaskar Baruah, Flora of the Bongaigaon District of Assam by Ananta Bora, Herbaceous Angiosperms of Tezpur subdivision of Sonitpur District, Assam by Maya Devi, Systematic studies on the Acquatic Angiosperms of Cachar District of Assam by Nripendra Chandra Malakar, Systematic Studies of the Angiosperms of Kamrup District, Assam by I.C. Baruah, Eco- taxonomy of the Genus Dendrobium Sw. (Orchidaceae) of North-East India by Chaya Deori, A detailed study of Golaghat subdivision and its neighbouring areas by P. Gogoi, Floristic composition of Orang wildlife sanctuary of Assam by Surendra Mohan Nath and Study of plant diversity status in Manas Biosphere Reserve with special reference to Community Structure by Pranjal Bezbarua. Besides, discovery of a new species Larsenianthus assamensis S. Dey, Mood, & S. Choudhury is another new record to the flora of Assam. Centrosema pubescens Benth., a species found in Assam was reported to be new to Assam by Rajib Gogoi.

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