The magnolias are an essential part of the charm of Battleston Hill in London’s Wisley neighbourhood. Not many people realise those pink blooms have a touch of Kerala to them.

They were planted during the war years by Dr Janaki Ammal, a world-renowned botanist, cytogeneticist and global plant geographer when she was working at Wisley, close to the famous Kew Gardens. It was an extraordinary journey for a young woman to undertake in the early years of the 20th century.

EK Janaki Ammal was born in Tellichery in Kerala on November 4, 1897. Her father, Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was a sub-judge at Tellicherry (now Thallassery) in what was then the Madras Presidency. He had a keen interest in the natural sciences. He kept copious notes while developing his garden and maintained a lively correspondence with other scholars of the time. He also collected a well-stocked library and kept abreast of the latest news from both scientific and literary journals. He was the author of two books on the birds of the North Malabar region. The desire for learning based on keen observation was something he passed on to his large family.

He had 19 children from his first and second wives. Dr Janaki Ammal, as she came to be known, was the tenth in line from the children of his second wife, Deviamma, who bore him 13 children. His first wife, Sharada had six. They were by all accounts a very lively family. Among other features that distinguished the Dewan Bahadur’s brood was that his sons were keen cricketers, who made up the Tellicherry’s finest eleven.

Blossoming in Madras

After schooling in Tellichery, Janaki moved to Madras where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College and her Honours degree in Botany from the Presidency College in 1921.

She then taught at the Women’s Christian College, Madras. She received the Barbour Scholarship to the University of Michigan, where she obtained her Master’s degree in 1925. Returning to India, she continued to teach at the WCC, but went to Michigan again as the first Oriental Barbour Fellow where she obtained her DSc in 1931. On her return, she became Professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science, Trivandrum, and taught there during 1932-’34.

Janaki Ammal joined the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore to work on sugarcane biology. She was an expert in cytogenetics, which studies the genetic content and expression of genes in the cell.

In the early 1920s, the sweetest sugarcane came from Papua New Guinea, and was termed Saccharum officianarum. India actually imported this sweet sugar from Java and the Far East. During the 1910s, Madan Mohan Malaviya, a well-known scholar and freedom fighter, had suggested that India should try and improve our own sugarcane varieties (called S. spontaneum). This led to the start of the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore, Madras Presidency, led by CA Barber, which took on the task of improving the Indian sugarcane plants.

 Bittersweet success

Janaki’s research in this area led to identifying hybrid varieties of high-yielding sugarcane that would thrive in Indian conditions. It also helped to identify S. spontanuem as a native variety of sugarcane that had originated in India and to analyse the plant varieties best suited for crossbreeding.

However, her status as a single woman and a scientist created irreconcilable problems for Janaki amongst her male peers at Coimbatore. She never used the caste card, but it would have been well known that she belonged to the Thiyya community, considered to be backward at that time. They had risen in the social hierarchy due to access to education and the opportunities provided by the colonial system of rewarding merit.

She left Coimbatore to join the John Innes Horticultural Institute at London as an assistant cytologist and was with them from 1940 to 1945. She had vivid descriptions of diving under her bed during the night bombing but continuing her work the next day, dusting the broken glass off the laboratory shelves along with all the others.

She was later invited to work as a cytologist at the Royal Horticulture Society at Wisley, near Kew Gardens, famous for its collection of plants from around the world, as also for their annual flower shows. Janaki Ammal met many scientists of outstanding caliber during her years in the UK. During this time, she continued her interest in medicinal plants. (It’s interesting to note that her ancestors in Kerala, both the men and women, had a deep knowledge of native plants and their properties and were known as Vaidhyars, practitioners of native medicine.)

In 1945, she co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with biologist CD Darlington.

Delightful picnics

During her London years, Janaki kept a house close to her beloved gardens at Kew. She arranged small picnic outings for her guests when they visited her. Being an aunt on my mother’s side, we were beneficiaries of her hospitality in the early 1950s. The picnics would take place on a patch of grass over-looking the Thames River if the weather was good, or inside the cottage when it rained. Due to the restrictions caused by the war, the UK had still to follow strict food restrictions: one egg a week per individual, for instance, and strict rations regarding sugar and fruit.

She would provide a distraction for some of her younger guests by reading from the books of Beatrix Potter, or the illustrated books about tree fairies and elves. She was always very strict about bedtime. Like the children of her English colleagues, my younger sister and I were expected to have a supper of milk and Weetabix, get bathed and into bed by 7pm. Lunches were the main meal. She cooked a simple fare of rice, boiled vegetables and lentils on a single ringed gas stove in her tiny kitchen. Once, while on a bus back to Wisley, a kindly man offered me his weekly ration of a bar of chocolate. Maybe I looked like a starving Indian child. One look from Janaki was enough to convince me to politely refuse it.

Amongst her closest friends were the Seligmans. The Seligmans were an unusual couple with links to both East Africa and India. During the War, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sailasse took refuge with the Seligmans at their home in Wimbledon. He was the man known as the Lion of Judah. Hilda Seligman, a keen sculptor created a bronze bust of the Emperor. To fund her humanitarian programmes in India, Hilda Seligman wrote a book on the Emperor Ashok and one named When Peacocks Called, set in India. Visitors to the Kew Gardens today are always entertained by the sight of peacocks following them around when they board a small train that chugs across the Park. It could be that the Seligmans inspired the original peacocks at Kew Gardens.

One of the plants that Janaki Ammal worked upon at Wisley was on the cytogenetics of magnolia (the plant is related to the commercially desirable tea bush). To this day, just before the onset of summer, visitors to Battleston Hill, Wisley, may enjoy the sight of the magnolia shrubs that she planted. There is a small flowered variety named after her: Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.

Coming back home

Soon after our visit Janaki decided to return to India. She may have been encouraged by the example of her friends JB Haldane, the famous geneticist, who first used the word “clone” and anticipated a time when human beings could be replicated, who had moved to India; and Verrier Elwin, the well-known anthropologist who spent his later years living amongst the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh. It was a personal invitation from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru that persuaded Janaki Ammal to return to India. She came back and ran the Botanical Survey of India as its Director General, setting up the Botanical Garden at Lucknow and later the one in Jammu.

She continued her friendship with Haldane when she lived in Kolkata. She referred to him as a “Naughty Man” for his advanced views on human genetics and artificial breeding of the species. Friends remember her taking a long broom and cleaning the streets outside her place of work at the famous Chowringhee lane.

An early follower of Mahatma Gandhi, she was disappointed to find when she visited his ashram at Wardha that there was no attempt at all at growing plants and making the environment beautiful for the soul. She had hoped that living at the Gandhi ashram might be like return to the hermitages of the old rishis. However simple her way of life, there would always be a place for order and beauty. It could be one beautiful print on the wall, a flat dish arranged with the orange and white parijatham flowers, or if not anything a simple brass beggar’s bowl that she had picked up during her travels.

Even earlier than Nehru, Professor CV Raman saw the spark in her and made her a Foundation Fellow of the Academy. Years later, in 1957, she was elected to Indian National Science Academy. She worked for a short while, post retirement at the Atomic Research Station at Trombay. She received the Padma Shri in 1977. Two awards were instituted in her name  in 1999: the EK Janaki Ammal National Award on Plant Taxonomy and a similar one on Animal Taxonomy.

Commanding presence

Janaki was a tall and commanding presence in her prime. She tied her lustrous long hair into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. In her later years she took to wearing brilliant yellow silk sarees with a long loose blouse or jacket in the same color. Her statuesque presence reminded people of a Buddhist lady monk. Like certain Buddhist orders, she took a vow of chastity, austerity and silence for herself, limiting her needs to the barest minimum. She refused to speak about her life saying; “My work is what will survive.”

In her last years, she returned in 1970 as Emeritus Scientist to Maduraivoyal, outside of Chennai where there was a field research station for advanced studies in botany. Her main interest was in the rearing and care of a large family of cats and kittens. Her training as a geneticist and a teacher led her to track down and discover subtle differentiations in the characteristics of the kittens under her care.

She died in 1984. Even though, she never achieved the acclaim that she deserved in her lifetime, her spirit lives on in different ways.

Every time you take a spoonful of sugar grown by the Indian sugarcane farmer, it’s worth remembering Dr Janaki Ammal. Her research is what added that extra bit of sweetness.