Taste of Life: The duo covered Bombay Presidency’s flora, gave Punekars a garden

Published on Dec 01, 2022 04:34 PM IST

Even though the first botanical survey was carried out in India by the Europeans in the 16th century, devoted efforts were lacking in this direction

The seven-volume “Flora of the Bombay Presidency” remains a lasting memorial to Cooke’s critical acumen, industry, and energy. (HT FILE PHOTO)
The seven-volume “Flora of the Bombay Presidency” remains a lasting memorial to Cooke’s critical acumen, industry, and energy. (HT FILE PHOTO)
ByChinmay Damle

When the British started settling in the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century, initially for trade, they felt the need to acquaint themselves with the country. Even though the first botanical survey was carried out in India by the Europeans in the 16th century, devoted efforts were lacking in this direction. Garcia de Orta carried out a survey in 1563. Hendrik Adriaan von Rheede tot Draakestein published his survey “Hortus Indicus Malabaricus” in 1678.

The 19th-century surveys in various regions of the British colonies in Asia and Africa were carried out with an understanding that common plant species were the mainstay of habitats; they created woodlands, hedgerows, and meadows; they provided for herbivores and pollinators, and created homes for birds and mammals. Far more important than this understanding was the important and singular need to feed the European and “native” population in the colonies.

Many botanists tried to document the plant diversity of India. William Roxburgh published “Flora Indica” in 1832. Sir Joseph Hooker’s great work, “The Flora of British India”, published between 1872 and 1891, dealt with several thousand species of plants drawn from a wide area and grown under diverse climatic conditions. This was the first serious effort in documenting the flora of British India.

However, British rulers felt the need for local surveys to understand the region better. The European settlers, from the beginning of the 16th century, had introduced several crops in the subcontinent. But most of the crops, capable of feeding thousands, had remained localised. Regional surveys would help in utilising the land for growing certain crops, they felt.

The earliest essay “Flora of Bombay” was that of John Graham, deputy postmaster general, who published a catalogue of plants grown in Bombay and Poona in 1839. Graham died at the early age of 34 before the work was completed. Although a mere list, as its title implies, for no descriptions of plants enumerated were given, still the work was excellent as far as it went, and gave, what was most valuable in a work of the kind, the localities from which the several plants were obtained. Considering the means of communication that existed in those days, for there were no railways, and travelling was difficult and tedious, one cannot help being struck with admiration at the number of plants brought together in the catalogue, all of which were, as Graham stated, personally examined by him.

The next work was “Bombay Flora” (1861) by two well-known botanists, Dalzell and Gibson. The descriptions were somewhat meagre and no distinguishing characters were given of orders and genera, an omission that made the work less useful to students.

The necessity for “local” or “regional” flora to supplement Hooker’s work still remained unfulfilled, until Dr Theodore Cooke came up with the most comprehensive and authentic work on the biodiversity of the Bombay Presidency.

Cooke — esquire, companion of the most eminent order of the Indian Empire, Doctor of Laws, Master of Arts, fellow of the Geological Society, and principal of the College of Science, Poona — was born in Drogheda in Ireland in 1836. In 1851, he was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, obtaining his BA and the Licentiate in Civil Engineering in 1860. In the former faculty, he was a Hebrew prizeman, first honoursman, and senior moderator and gold medallist in science; in the latter, he obtained special certificates in mechanics, chemistry, mineralogy, mining, and geology. After working briefly in London under Colonel Kennedy, he left for India where he spent four years as an engineer for the Bombay, Baroda, and Central Railway Company. He was responsible for erecting the 4,312-ft-long iron bridge at Vasai, an engineering marvel at that time.

Five years later, the Bombay government secured the services of the talented young engineer as principal of the Civil Engineering College, which later became the College of Science, at Poona (the present “College of Engineering, Pune”, or COEP).

Throughout his service, Cooke had taken a keen interest in botanical studies, and fieldwork connected therewith was one of his chief recreations. However, what he did as a pastime was characterised by the thoroughness that marked his official work; he soon became a recognised authority on the vegetation of the Bombay Presidency, and it was only fitting that when, in 1890, the Botanical Survey of India was organised, Cooke should be placed in charge of the survey operations in western India.

Before 1890, botanical gardens were established at Shibpur, Saharanpur, Madras, and Poona as centres for improving botanical knowledge and experimentation under the local governments. Cooke had had an excellent opportunity of making acquaintance with the flora in Poona firsthand and was largely responsible for the brilliant research carried out at the Ganeshkhind Garden. Assisting him was George Marshall Woodrow.

Woodrow has been mockingly referred to as a “gardener” by a few eminent personalities writing in Marathi in the 19th-20th centuries. These Maharashtrian men believed that the British did not possess any knowledge of the land they were ruling and that the information they produced in their books was “purloined” from villagers.

However, Woodrow was no gardener. He held a position of lecturer in botany at the College of Science. He was also in charge of the Ganeshkhind Botanical Garden and in 1872, all the official gardens were brought under his charge. He established the Agri-Horticultural Society’s Garden at Poona, which is now known as the Empress Botanical Garden.

The first herbarium in western India was started in 1880 by the Bombay government under Cooke and was initially kept at the Ganeshkhind Botanical Garden. While Cooke, along with Woodrow, experimented with growing vegetables like carrot, cabbage, parsnip, turnip, and lettuce at Poona, he was deeply motivated to survey the flora of the Bombay Presidency. He felt that the outline had been drawn by Hooker, the details could be filled in and more attention devoted to local conditions which the scale of the previous work rendered impracticable.

Realising the need to supplement the indexing of national flora with regional ones, Cooke travelled extensively and undertook a flora survey of the Bombay Presidency, covering nearly 1,400 species till 1899, assisted by Woodrow.

However, this valuable work was destroyed by fire in May 1902. Fortunately, Cooke had a duplicate set at Kew, where he was living after retirement, which he presented to Ganeshkhind Garden. Cooke and Woodrow, the pioneer collectors in starting the herbarium, were assisted by several Indian workers like Kanitkar (1891), Ranade (1893), and Bhide (1898).

Cooke, with the help of the research he had carried out at the College of Science as well as the Ganeshkhind Garden, compiled his substantial “Flora of the Bombay Presidency”, which is still considered one of the most valuable works of the kind. The seven volumes were published between 1903 and 1908. On its completion, Cooke continued to work in the herbarium with undiminished ardour, assisting as a volunteer in the preparation of the great “Flora Capensis”, edited by Sir WT Thiselton until laid aside by the illness that ended his illustrious career.

The seven-volume “Flora of the Bombay Presidency” remains a lasting memorial to Cooke’s critical acumen, industry, and energy.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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