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India's Girija and Viru Viraraghavan

Girija and Viru in London
Viraraghavan's in London
Viru Viraraghavan fell in love with roses at age 18, in 1955 (birth date: 9th May 1937) when he saw a beautiful shrub of Julien Potin in full bloom, at Sim's Park ( a government botanical garden) in the hill station of Coonoor , which is in the Nilgiri ('Blue') Mountains of  South India. Coonoor is very near the more important hillstation of Ootacamund (Uthagamandalam) which used to be the summer capital of the Madras Presidency (a vast state which has since been divided into smaller states) during British colonial days. Viru's father was in the prestigious Indian Civil Service (I.C.S.), and so every summer the family would move to Ootacamund (called Ooty for short).

Roses became his passion right through school and college, where he did his Masters in Chemistry. He passed the premier government administrative service, called the Indian Administrative Service (I.A.S., which was the successor to the I.C.S., in independent India) in 1959, and worked in various senior capacities, including Director, and Secretary, Agriculture and Horticulture Departments, Government of Andhra Pradesh, which is a state in central India (capital: Hyderabad). He voluntarily retired after 20 years, in 1980, to concentrate on rose breeding.

He had been growing roses in his various gardens right from 1955 ( both his father and he, being in government service, were subject to transfers from place to place) and from 1965 he began to breed roses.

In 1980, Viru and Girija (born 17th September 1939, Masters in History, and Bachelor in Education) settled in Kodaikanal, a hillstation (220 metres elevation ) to the south of Coonoor and OOty, as Viru felt the climate there was more conducive to rose breeing. Rose breeding aims began by trying to raise roses in unusual colours, and in the 'hand-painted' strain. He has released over 60 roses, some of which have been registered with the IRAR - a few are: 'Sunlit Snow' ('Annapurna), 'Magic East' (Boddhisatwa), 'Coffee Country' (Coorg), 'Nefertiti', 'Orient Silk'(Ahimsa), which is thornless, Orient Spice (Rajni), Southern Sunset (Tamrabarani), Magic Medley.

"Our feeling that we needed to breed roses which would do well in warm climates (India is mostly tropical and sub tropical) was given a fillip when, fortuitously, we learnt of the existence of the only tropical rose species in the world - R. clinophylla (earlier called R. involucrata), which exists in 3 forms, according to the location it is found in, and we have been able to procure all 3 forms. We are still on the hunt for other forms in different places in the country.

"We read about the Indian form of R. gigantea and made an expedition, in 1990, to the north east of India where at Ukhrul, on the Burma border, up a mountain slope (Mount Sirohi) , we found huge specimens of this species. Being January there were no flowers, but we collected seeds and cuttings, and have raised seedlings and now we have literally gigantic specimens scrambling up all our trees. We have been distributing seed to anyone interested.

"We are now concentrating on breeding with R. clinophylla and R. gigantea. We are 5th generation down the line in each case, and have also crossed the 2 species themselves, and have started this line of breeding too. Clinophylla is a water-loving rose, we grow plants in our lily ponds, and gigantea has the hugest sized flowers. Our clinophylla and gigantea seedlings are still under trial, but hopefully in 2005 we will release some."

The ultimate aim is to extend rose growing to the warmer parts of the subtropics and even the tropical parts of the world, areas which are rapidly developing, but without roses. A special emphasis is on producing roses with 'evergreen 'foliage so that the rose becomes a plant beautiful even when not in bloom and thus able to compete effectively with the spectacular foliage of tropical plants.

In order to evaluate our 'warm climate roses' better we have a farm 400 kms. away from Kodaikanal, on the plains , where we test our roses. We go there for a few days every month to check out on how the seedlings are faring. Girija is researching on the history of the rose in India from ancient times.

Viru also hybridizes rhododendrons (we have a wild species in our hills, R. arboreum ssp. Niligirense ) and we grow camellias, magnolias, and a host of other trees and plants. We love to travel, visiting rose and other gardens, when it is possible to leave our own garden.

We are also ardent environmentalists, being founder members of a conservation society in Kodaikanal, which being a tourist center, has all the attendant ills of a 'touristy' place. Kodaikanal is located in the Palni Hills ( part of the Western Ghats range of mountains) and has a pristine environment and ecosystems with many rare, endangered (and unfortunately many extinct) species of flora and fauna. Rosa leschenaultiana is a native of our hills.

Both have held positions of Vice- Presidentship in the Indian Rose Federation, the all India apex body of rose societies. Both are also Editors of the Indian Rose Annual, (since1985) brought out in time for the annual National Rose Convention held in different cities each year.
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 31 May 2005 )
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