As my attention turns from the New World to the very old world (India), I reluctantly shift my eyes from deergrass, monkeyflower, and coast live oak to the native plants of India. This, however, begs the question: What are the native plants of India? In fact, in an area with evidence of ancient cities, thousands rather than hundreds of years old, and mass migrations of people, how can anyone know what grew there before people brought in new things? And does it matter?
The concept of native plants is one deeply embedded and embraced here in California. The definition is simple: Native plants are those that were found here before the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century. It is a geopolitical definition. The idea is that plants pre-dating European influence evolved with the local fauna and microorganisms over a long period of time relative to the introduction of plants by Europeans. People who were living here before this period moved plants, but their mobility was limited in comparison to that of the new invaders. In time, the trend to move things around, either inadvertently or intentionally, has greatly increased. This along with other rapid changes to global and local environments may be leading to a sharp reduction of species known today as the Holocene Extinction.
Identifying “native” plants in the New World, therefore, is pretty straight forward. Whatever was here before the European invasion is considered native. This simple definition is probably due more to our ignorance and lack of interest in pre-European America than anything else; however, it does make defining non-native plants simple. Is there a simple way to define non-native species in a place like India? Surely knowing the political history of the region is helpful.
In the most general terms, India’s history seems to be one that started early and was marked by numerous civilizations and widespread movement into and within the region. One of the earliest urban civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization, flourished in northwestern Indian and Pakistan over 4,000 years ago. The Gupta Empire extended through much of India from early 300 CE to 600s CE during what is commonly known as India’s Golden Age. This period was followed by the Islamic invasions of India beginning in the early 14th Century and then the Moghul Empire of the 16th Century. Trading from western Europe began in the 17th Century during the time of the Moghul Empire, while British rule occurred from 1858 to Indian independence in 1947. This very brief paragraph highlights a few periods in a long and active history.
I suppose that it would be simple and consistent – though disgustingly Eurocentric – to define non-native plants as those that arrived with western Europeans. So, like here in the Americas, though people moved around and brought in species from other parts of the world long before European invasions, the massive influx of non-natives likely coincides with the advent of the East India Trading Company in the 17th Century.
I hope to read and learn, with an open mind, much more about non-native plants. Humans have been moving themselves along with plants and other animals around the world since the very beginning. The alarming rate of extinction that we are experiencing today is likely to be a result of rapid climatic and biotic changes brought on by both a huge human population and our ability to dramatically modify the environment. As I turn my attention to a new and very different place I hope to learn something new about my own home as well.
Picture taken during 2008 visit to India. Castor bean (Ricinus communis), on right, is invasive weed in CA but probably native to India.
Giant reed (Arundo donax) is a highly problematic weed in much of the world, but is right at home in its native origins which probably also include India.
And finally I would like to add that the much hated (by me at least) Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) is not only native to India but much loved there. According to Blue Planet Biomes: “To the Hindu in India, bermuda grass was a sacred grass because it fed their sacred cows.”