Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


History Of Flowers And Gardening In India

By Jyoti Prakash MSc. (Agriculture)
Zonal Agronomist (Retired)
Indian Farmers Fertiliser Co-operative Ltd.
Bangalore, India

Among the several kinds of flowers grown in the garden, only a few are natives of our country. The important flowers which are natives of India and which are under cultivation in different parts of the world are orchids, rhododendrons, musk rose (Rosa moschata), begonia, balsam (Immpatiens balsamina), globe amaranth(Gomphrena Globosa), gloriosa lily (Gloriosa superba), foxtail lily (Eremerus himalicus), primula (Primuladenticulata P.rosea), blue poppy (Meconopsis), lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), water lily Nymphae spp.), clematis (Clematis Montana- a climber) and the wild tulip of the Himalayas (Tulipa stellata and T.aitchisonii). Of these, only the lotus has been mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit scripture of the Vedic times. Mention of the lotus was also made by Kalidasa in his play Shakuntala. The poet Asvaghosa (A.D.100) also mentions the lotus in his Buddha Charita. According to Dr. M. S. Randhawa, the flowering trees were commonly grown in the gardens in the Hindu-Buddhist periods and the native annual herbaceous plants were perhaps not cultivated.

Gardening has been popular in India from ancient times. In the Ramayana, mention is made of the Ashokavana, in which Sita was held captive. 'Ashoka trees (Saraca indica) were predominant in this garden. A description of the layout of gardens and parks and artificial lakes in the city of Indraprastha is given in the Sabha-Parva of the Mahaharata. Several trees, such as Saraca indica, Terminalia arjuna, Mesua ferrea, Ficus benghalensis, F.religiosa, Michelia champaka, Butea monosperma and Casia fistula, have been mentioned in the Ramayana. Almost all of them have also been described in the Mahabharata. The association of Lord Krishna with the Kadamba tree (Anthocephalus indicus) is well known. In the ancient Sanskrit work of Panini in Ashtadhyayi, several beautiful trees are mentioned, such as Ficus (F.religiosa, F.benghalensis, F.infectora), Butea monosperma, Prosopis spcigeraKadamba and a few others. The poet Asvaghosa described the Nandanavana in which Siddhartha Gauthama saw flowering trees and lotuses. During the Buddhist period, gardens were laid out around the monasteries and stupas and there were beautiful gardens in Nalanda and Taxila. It is said that Lord Buddha was born under a tree in a garden, the pipal. The Bodhi tree under which The Buddha attained nirvna, is sacred to the Buddhists.

The planting of roadside avenue trees (margeshuvriksha) was an important contribution of the king Ashoka (233B.C.). Similarly, Shudraka (100B.C.) has also given an account of gardens and flowers in the Mrichhakatikam. Kalidasa (about 57B.C.) in his play Shakuntala has mentioned the pleasure garden having a bower of the madhavi creeper (Hiptage madablota) and several beautiful trees like Ashoka (Saraca indica), Kadamba (Anthocephalus indicus), Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna)Vakula (Mimusops elengi), Palasha (Butea monosperma), Parijata (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) and Kavidara (Bauhinia varieagata).

The art of gardening has been described by Saragadhara (A.D.1300) in his Upavana Vinoda,and Sarangadhara Paddhati, wherein mention is also made of some trees. Vatsyayana (A.D.300-400) has also rendered interesting accounts of four kinds of gardens, namely, pramadodyan, udyan, vrikshavatika and nandanavana. Classical Sanskrit literature, as mentioned above, as well as the flower and tree motifs delineated in old sculptures and the architecture of Mathura (Kanishka period A.D.78-101), Bharhut, Sanchi and several others and displayed in the Ajanta frescoes (A.D.100-600) bear testimony to the importance of gardening and flowers in Indian culture.

The important native ornamental flowering trees, many of which have been mentioned in ancient literature are Kachnar (Bauhinia variegata), Amaltas (Cassia fistula), Pink cassia (Cassia nodosa) Dhak or Flame of the Forest (Butea Frondosa), Indian coral tree (Erythrina blakei, Pride of India (Lagerstroemia flos-reginae,L.thorelli), Lal Lasora or Scarlet Cordia (Cordia sebestena), Yellow silk cotton (Cochlospermum gossypium), Karanj (Pongamia glabra), Rugtora or Wavy-leafed Tecomella (Tecomella undulata), tulip tree or Bhendi (Thespesia populnae), Crataeva roxburghii, Sterculia colorata,chalta (Dillenia indica), Ashoka,Kadamba and rhododendrons.

Among the native shrubs and climbers, the most important ones are the jasmine (Jasminum sambac, J.pubescens, J.auriculatum, J.humile, J.officinale, J.grandiflora) and madhavi (Hiptage medablota), which have been mentioned by Kalidasa in his plays.The other indigenous species are Bauhinia acuminata, Mussaenda frondosa, Ixora spp. (I.coccinae, I.parviflora, I.barbata, I.undulata) Hamiltonia sauveolens, Holmskioldia sanguinea, Clerodendron inerme, Crossandra ininfundibuliformis, Plumbago rosea, Plumbago zeylancia, Tabernaemontana coronaria, Trachelospermum fragrans, Osmanthus fragrans, Passiflora leschenaulti, Clitoria ternatea, Porana paniculata, Glorosia superba and Clemantis Montana.

Like many crop plants, several of the flowers, particularly the herbaceous annuals, biennials and perennials and bulbous flowers grown in our country, have been introduced from abroad. These exotic flowers have come from Europe, America, Africa, China, Japan and other countries. How these exotic flowers were introduced in India has not been properly recorded. However, it can be said that most of the exotic flowers were introduced during the Mughal and British periods. With the renaissance of gardening in India by the Mughal emperors beginning with Babur, many plant species were brought by them from Persia and Central Asia where herbaceous and bulbous flowers were already under cultivation. Many of these have been mentioned in autobiographies and other books written during those days. Besides, in the Mughal paintings also we find illustrations of many flowers. These have also been used to illustrate the borders of those paintings. In the book Bagh-I-wafa, the emperor Babur has presented a description of gardening in India. The Mughal emperors introduced several types of plants, many of which were planted in Kashmir where the climate was more suitable for the growth of such plants than that of the plains. The species brought by them included the famous Chinar tree, which is the most beautiful tree in Kashmir even today, besides roses, carnations, irises, narcissuses, daffodils, lilies, tulips and others. The rose was introduced into our country via the port of Bussorah by Babur in the year 1526 or so. Jehangir and Nurjehan were ardent lovers of the rose and encouraged rose growing in gardens.

Later during the British period many species were introduced mainly by Englishmen and the Portugese. These were mostly brought in by missionaries and priests, civil servants and individual amateur gardeners. One of the important missionaries who introduced a number of exotic plants was Dr. Firminger, an Englishman, who wrote a book on gardening, giving descriptions of various species of flowers in the year 1863. The book entitled 'Firminger's Manual of Gardening in India' is an authoritative reference book on ornamental flowering plants even today.

Several of our native flowers, particularly the attractive flora of the Himalayas including many alpine species, have been introduced in other countries. During the early British period in India, when some famous gardens were being developed in Great Britain, several plant collectors came to our country in search of beautiful wild flowers. The wealth of Himalayan flora was taken to England in the early part of this century. One of these important plant collectors was Frank Kingdon-ward, who visited Assam and Burma about five to seven times during the years 1938 to 1956. He discovered the blue poppy (Meconopsis)for the first time. Ludlow and Sheriff went to Kashmir during the year 1939-41 besides visiting other areas like Tibet and Bhutan. There were similar expeditions to Nepal also. Several other botanists and plant hunters also came from many other European countries and the USA to our country in search of wild ornamental flowers. As a result of these plant collections, many wild flowers including many alpines like several species of Primula, Orchids, Aconitum, Androsace, Delphinium ,Erigeron, Anemone, Aquilegia, Aster, Bergenia, Campanula, Corydalis, Gentiana, Geum, Saxifraga, Allium, Fritillaria, Lilium, Iris, Meconopsis, Paeonia, Clematis, Cornus, Prunus, Rhododendrons, Sorbus, Viburnum and several others were introduced from their wild habitats in India into England and other European countries. Some of these, like the Blue poppy (Meconopsis), Clematis Montana, many species of orchids, rhododendrons and primula, balsam, begonia, foxtail lily (Eremurus himalaicus), gloriosa lily (Gloriosa superba, musk rose (Rosa moschata) etc, are now widely grown in gardens in several parts of the world. Several species of orchids and rhododendrons, which are native of India, have been extensively used in breeding new varieties and hybrids. Most of the plants species introduced from India into Great Britain are being maintained in the Kew and Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. Unfortunately many of us in India are not aware of our rich heritage of native flowers.

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Revised Saturday, February 24, 2001

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture