He still talks about his time in Arunachal Pradesh with a sense of wonder; Like the person who finds the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Almost half a century ago, 23-year-old Abbareddy Nageswara Rao traveled for four days from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh to Guwahati in Assam by small trains, then by bus to Shillong in Meghalaya. In Arunachal Pradesh, to conduct the then rare orchid census.
He did not know the language, was unfamiliar with the food. But he had heard that there are rare flowers in this state that no one has documented yet.
By the time Rao left Arunachal Pradesh 35 years later, he had discovered 35 new species of orchids. Many are local; Two are named after him (Dendrobium Nageswarayanam and Tropidia Hegdearaoi). The two he remembers hunting the hardest are Bearmania arunachalensis, a small endemic species that grows only in April on the moss-covered branches of small trees and flowers. and Cymbidium henbungense, also endemic, but which remains as a rooted stem most of the year, emerges from the ground in September, in flower for only 15 days.
Rao, now 68, dreamed of finding new plant species ever since he was doing his master’s degree in botany. “The discoverer of new plants is mentioned in botanical history. It really excited me. I wanted to discover new species and name them as I wanted. I wanted to keep them like my children,” he says.
He eventually collected so many “orchid babies” that, two weeks ago, he received the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards, for his contribution in the face of considerable challenges. Those obstacles included malaria-causing mosquitoes (“My legs were always bitten; I don’t know how I did it,” he says with a laugh), large snakes, insurgency and the fact that landlines were also rare. “It was very dangerous, and I often couldn’t call home for weeks,” he says.
Rao’s journey to Arunachal Pradesh began in the 1970s, when the young botanist received a research fellowship with the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). Jay Joseph, then Deputy Director of BSI’s Eastern Circle, pointed him towards the flowers. Orchids are rarely studied, he said. If you want to make an impression, that would be a good place to start.
Rao was accordingly entrusted with the orchid survey of eight states of North-Eastern India, which are rich in this valuable medicinal and ornamental plant. It was a practice that would take him four years. On his visit, locals who still use these plants medicinally and sell flowers will become a major source of tips for rare species.
Rao bowed. “I wanted to study almost everything in the field, from molecular structure to reproductive patterns,” he says.
A year after he completed the survey, in 1982, while working on a thesis on the orchids of Arunachal Pradesh, Rao joined the state government’s Department of Environment and Forests as Assistant Orchidologist. He served there for 30 years.
“The biggest reward in taxonomy is the discovery of a new species. It’s a feeling I can’t describe in words. The whole idea of a sense of ownership of the species I’ve discovered keeps me going,” he says.
But his mission was not only to tag and locate. He wanted to produce hybrid breeds. “If we only use wild orchid species, some may disappear, especially since these flowers are very delicate and can only grow in very specific conditions. I wanted to produce a hybrid orchid that we could use to our advantage without harming the species.”
Working with other researchers, Rao has helped create five hybrid varieties.
At the age of 54, he retired from his government post and took up a new role as the Director of the Center for Orchid Gin Conservation at Manipur in the Eastern Himalayan region, an independent research body operating under the Department of Science and Technology of the Central Government.
In 2016, he retired from that too, and returned to Andhra Pradesh with his wife Sridevi Rao, now a 56-year-old housewife, and their son Srinath Rao, 32. “I wanted to go home and enjoy family time,” he says. A part of Arunachal Pradesh returned with him. The family property at Eluru in West Godavari is called Orchid Villa.