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KARACHI, Feb 19: The Karachi University Botanical Garden (KUBG) is set to open to the public once a week in the first week of March.

Inaugurated last year, the garden is the first of its kind in Pakistan, representing over 2,000 exotic and indigenous plant species.

The initiative is being taken to educate the public about plant diversity, with special reference to Pakistan. The KUBG has also recently become a member of the Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the world’s largest botanical gardens and plant conservation network.

Professor Dr Mohammad Qaiser, the Project Director and Vice-Chancellor of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology (FUUAST), said that preparations were under way to open the garden for public viewing and it was expected that the plan would materialise shortly.

“People have shown a lot of interest in visiting the garden since the project officially took off last September. In fact, emulating us, other universities have also planned to build botanical gardens, which is a good omen not only from the point of view of research, but also for plant conservation and public education,” he said, adding that students from different educational institutions had been regular visitors to the garden while it had also become a repository of research for KU students.

According to Prof Dr Anjum Perveen, who is currently looking after the KUBG, the garden would also open twice a week for university staff and their families. The ticket fee hasn’t been decided yet, while the process of training some KU students as guides would be initiated shortly. Keeping in view the maintenance of the garden, she said, the management was contemplating imposing a certain age restriction for children.

Spread over 35 acres, the garden has many sections comprising a wide, diverse range of plants and trees, which are all watered with the help of an energy-efficient waste water treatment plant. The whole garden is connected through a 2.75km-long walkway and can be accessed by wheelchair. An open-air theatre has also been constructed for educational activities.

Among the plants, the major attractions include insectivorous plants such as Ginkgo biloba (one of the best known examples of a living fossil), Victoria amazonica (the species named after Queen Victoria is the largest of the Nymphaeaceae family of water lilies), tree fern and the grass tree (native to Australia, these slow-growing plants have a life-span of 600 years).

Wide variety of plants

A large number of plants from tropical, temperate and alpine zones are kept in greenhouses where the environment is controlled and plant growth is monitored. The tropical house comprises epiphyte plants (mainly orchids), different species of ferns, palms and mosses (non-vascular plants), such as Spanish moss and Club moss. The pitcher plant — a carnivore — is also kept here along with Mimosa pudica (touch-me-not), Sansevieria trifasciata (also called mother-in-law’s tongue because of its long, sharp leaves) as well as pineapple and betel-nut plants.

At the alpine and temperate house, there are different species of juniper and fruit trees along with plants of tea, olive, Acacia modesta (phulai), Diospyros lotus (amlok), Magnolia grandiflora (bull bay, native to the south-eastern United States) and some plant species donated by Dr Albert Stevens, Director of the Berlin Botanical Garden (the second largest botanical garden of Europe).

The section for medicinal plants include Jatropha curcas (jamal gota), Bacopa monnieri (water hyssop, popular in Ayurvedic medicine), Withania coagulans (common in Afghanistan and East India), Prosopis cineraria (jand, commonly found in Thar, used as fodder and for construction purposes), Ocimum tenuiflorum (tulsi), Datura alba (thorn-apple) and Ocimum basilicum (nyazbo, widely used in cosmetics, perfumes and liqueurs).

Besides, there are some plants which are endemic to Pakistan, for instance Acacia nilotica subsp. hemispherica, Convolvulus sindicus, Asparagus dumosus (from the dried and arid regions of southern Pakistan), Abutilon sepalum, Tamarix salina, Ruellia sindica (bukhar booti) and Cadaba heterotricha (some of the rare plants of the Saharo-Sindian region).

Endangered species

There is also a big collection of different varieties of palms, cacti, calcium-loving, salt-tolerant halophytes and aquatic plants. About endemic plants, Haider Abbas, Assistant Professor at the Dr A.Q. Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, KU, and a horticulturist at the KUBG, said that most of these plants were threatened since they existed only in Pakistan and there was hardly any effort for their conservation. One of the species vanishing from Balochistan and Sindh is Nannorrhops ritchieana (a dwarf palm).

Elaborating upon the reasons, Abbas said: “A major source of livelihood in rural Balochistan, the dwarf palm is extensively cut and used for making a variety of goods such as baskets and mats while Commiphora wightii (gugal) is exported illegally to India, where it is used in perfumes, medicine and cosmetics. The unfortunate part is that the gugal tree is killed with a poison before it is uprooted. This is done to claim that the plant was already dead when it was cut.” Featured on the Red data list of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), gugal has been a key component in the Ayurvedic system of medicine and is the same product that was known in Hebrew, ancient Greek and Latin sources as bdellium.

About Cadaba heterotricha, Abbas pointed out that the plant species was only reported from Karachi, the Arabian Peninsula and the Somali coast, which was indicative of the Mesozoic era when this entire region was one. “This ancient plant can become an excellent replacement for Clerodendrum inerme (dum-dum) to make hedges, since it is drought-resistant, slow-growing, insect-resistant and blooms profusely,” he said, while stressing the importance of research on the genetic potential of wild plants.

About future plans, he said that a seed bank and plant conservation laboratory had been established and a plant nursery would open soon. Besides, projects such as an educational/visitors centre, souvenir shop and launching of a website were also in the pipeline.

“Botanic gardens are playing a vital role in human well-being all over the world. The KUBG is just the beginning of the long journey that aims to bring man closer to nature,” he concluded.