How many of you know where Pakistan’s oldest and finest botanical garden with 6,000 herbarium varieties exists. Set up in 1912 in Lahore opposite the Governor’s House, it was in its days the finest in the British Indian Empire.

But let me start this piece on a different note, a personal one at that. Among the many reasons I married aeons ago was because in a chance encounter she reeled off a number of botanical names of trees and plants. That impressed me. The rest is history. It reminded me of my late uncle Sheikh Hafeezur Rehman, a former Punjab information secretary. A Japanese guest to his GOR house asked the name of the plant hanging in the verandah. He promptly replied: “Flora Latkeenda” (flowers hanging). The guest was impressed by his ‘botanical’ prowess. The family enjoyed the joke.

It was just such a ‘testing’ name that made me ask my wife what was a Pipal tree’s botanical name. She promptly responded: “Ficus Religiosa, or sacred fig. Common people like you care a fig and call it Bodhi Tree”. Clean bowled. I confessed my ‘botanical’ ignorance. My confession of ignorance probably impressed her.

As the coronavirus lockdown continues, last Thursday I went on a walk near my house passing by the Cambridge University Botanical Gardens. The long botanical names of trees and plants were visible and very difficult ones most seem to have. It is now a major heritage tourist stopover in this 812-year old university town. Set up in 1846 by the professor of Charles Darwin, who went on to donate a lot of plants from all over the world collected after his ‘The Beagle’ expedition.

In this garden my favourite greenhouse is ‘The Chilli Greenhouse’, which has hundreds of chilli varieties, including the world’s hottest chilli, whose heat level is guaranteed to kill you. It is actually ‘fatal’. Only six persons in history have tried it and only one survived. Today that plant is used by manufacturers to bring low-quality chilli powder up to the required heat.

Just for the record the world’s hottest chilli is brown in colour and is called the ‘Carolina Reaper’ with a SHU (Scoville Heat Unit) of 2.2 million. The hottest chilli in the entire sub-continent is called Bhoot Jolokia (Ghost Chilli) and is found in the mountains of Nepal. The ‘super-hot’ variety grown in Sindh, Pakistan, especially Dundicut, are a mere 50,000 SHU. My advice is ‘Stay Away’ from the Carolina Reaper.

This amazing garden has produced hundreds of scholars who have excelled in what is called ‘Plant Sciences’. A lot of them came to British India and thankfully in 1912, under the guidance of Professor A.S. Hemmy, Pakistan’s first Botanical Garden was set up by the Government College, Lahore. My wife, who did her Masters in Botany, from Peshawar University, keeps bragging about ‘her’ university botanical garden being four times larger than that of Government College.

They have now expanded it with another 120-acre new Botanical Garden in Nowshera. So this poor Ravian cannot brag about his alma mater’s botanical garden at home. My college has 6,000 plant varieties against her 10,000 plus. The Royal Kew Garden has over 50,000 varieties. But then the GC one is the oldest in the country. Pakistan has 18 botanical gardens with Lahore having five, including a large one at Jallo, which is more a playground than a serious scientific endeavour. Peshawar has four with the rest spread out in different universities. Most of them are small specialised ones, while the major universities have serious research-oriented gardens.

In its hey days the GC Botanical Garden included the old and original Company Bagh, which became Lawrence Garden, only to be called Bagh-i-Jinnah. We love changing names as if it was an achievement. Just why we are ashamed of our colonial heritage puzzles me. The combined GC Botanical Garden and the Lawrence Garden was host to one of the largest botanical collection in the sub-continent. But then the GC portion was cut off. Later on a large chunk was usurped by the Lahore Zoo, which in turn lost a lot of space to the Freemasons Hall to make room for the posh cars of the chief minister.

Now about the Botanical Garden itself. It is one of the oldest departments established by Government College, Lahore, in 1902. Some of the world’s finest botanists from Cambridge University’s Botanical Garden, as well as the Royal Kew Garden, London, were on a visit to India gathering plants for their collection. In Lahore they met the GC head of botany, Prof. Shiv Ram Kashyap.

If you have never heard of Prof. Kashyap, let me explain. The Kashyap family belonged to a Jhelum family of Army soldiers. The professor was a Himalayan bryophytes specialist. He is known as the father of Indian plant sciences. After doing his M.Sc, he went to Cambridge University passing with a Tripos in Natural Sciences. In 1920 he set up the Indian Botanical Society. The moss species Calymperaceae has been named ‘Kashyapia’.

After a series of discussions they convinced Prof Kashyap and Prof. Hemmy, the college principal, to set up a Botanical Garden so as to add to the research capabilities of the college staff and the students. Hence the first step was taken to set up a plant museum and a herbarium. Prof Shiv Ram Kashyap remained the head of the department from 1912 to 1934 and in his tenure plants from China, Indonesia and the Philippines were collected.

The colonial office and the Royal Kew Garden of London kept sending saplings over the years and very soon an amazing and rare collection was accumulated. The Cambridge University kept sending saplings from their collection, and the reason being that a lot of their botany students were by then working in the colonial administration, especially in education. So a soft corner of sorts developed for they wished to put forth a source of sub-continental botanical research knowledge.

Very soon the GC Botanical Garden had the finest collection of mosses and liverworts in the whole of Asia. Added to them were hundreds of specimens of angiosperms, algae, fungi, bryophytes, gymnosperms and pteridophytes. Very soon it was considered as the finest in the sub-continent. Then came a sad happening, for when the Punjab University was established near the college a large chunk of this rare collection was forcibly taken away by their botany department in the name of ‘higher learning’. The fact remains, still, that even today the GC research output is far superior to that of the university.

However, once the Punjab University set up a Centre of Excellence in Microbiology on the Lahore Canal, a new centre excelling in tissue culture came about. The fact remains that this aspect of the botanical science was well established in GC by 1946. Over the years as the museum grew in fame and research excellence, it was named Prof Kashyap Museum, and the herbarium has been named the Dr Sultan Ahmed Herbarium. These two centres of botanical excellence are today considered among the finest in the sub-continent and highly respected in the West.

The GC Botanical Garden was confined to seven acres, while the adjoining Lawrence Garden was part of this extended herbarium. With time collectively it was famed as having every plant species in the world, a rather tall claim. But it was at its height very near the truth. Even today the diversity of plants is among the top 20 botanical gardens of the world.

Today there is a dire need for the GC Botanical Garden to be given some more land, some from that taken over by Lawrence Garden and the remaining from the land taken from the zoo for the chief minister’s car park. If the car park land is returned to the zoo and the empty zoo car park returned to the GC Botanical Garden, it will breathe again in all its glory. As a loyal Ravian, this is the least I can wish for.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2020