Sunday, May 3, 2009

In Search of the elusive 'Nayantara'..... the 'Rosy Periwinkle'.

For quite sometime now, we have been trying to get the 'Nayantara' or the 'Rosy Periwinkle' in our terrace garden. But no luck so far. The 'culprit' being the 'language barrier' between us and our gardener. I tried to explain to him about the flower in every way I could - that the plant was a small to medium sized one (1 or 2 feet high) with glossy, dark green, oval shaped leaves (1-2 inches long), the flowers came in three colours... white, pink and purple; that the flower is a five petalled one, that it was a sturdy plant which could be grown in pots (as a garden plant) and they flowered or bloomed throughout the year (one of my reasons for having the 'Nayantara' on our terrace garden in the first place) and so on... but all this came to naught. I also tried telling him the name... 'Nayantara' (which means, 'the star of one's eyes', lovely name, no??)... also called the Rosy Periwinkle or the Madagascar periwinkle. The botanical name being Catharanthus roseus... yeh botanical names bhi na... imagine, 'Nayantara', 'Rosy Periwinkle, and then all of a sudden 'Catharanthus roseus'...!! They not only come up with tongue twisters for a name, they even manage to eliminate that element of romance surrounding the name... right?? But... well, our gardener still did not quite get the flower I was referring to. Sigh!!

... And then, I had a brainwave and turned to 'Professor Google'... and bingo!... the problem was solved in a matter of minutes!!! I found half a dozen names of the 'Nayantara' flower... local names or its Kannada names, that is. Here they are: Batla hoo, Ganeshana hoo, Kempu kaayi kanagilu, Sadaa mallige, Thuruku mallige and Kempu kaasi kanigalu. Armed with these battery of names, I was certain that our gardener will have no problem in recognizing the flower now! So, my husband told him all the six names. We had to get the pronunciation right, you see... or else there might have been more waiting time for us... or even - the horror of horrors - the arrival of the 'wrong' plant... and we didn't want to take any chances...! He understood 'Sadaa mallige' at once... and has promised us... that he will get all the varieties - the white, the pink as well as the purple ones - as soon as possible! What would we do without the net... or more precisely google?!!

The 'Nayantara' flower - though not a large flower - has many names... perhaps second only to the Goddess Durga or Parvati... who has 108 names!!

Its English names are: Periwinkle, Cape Periwinkle, Rose Periwinkle, Cayenne jasmine, Old maid. It is called Sadabahar in hindi and Banappuvu, Nityakalyani, Savanari and Usamalari in Malayalam. In Sanskrit it is Nityakalyani and Sadapushpi, while in Tamil it is called, Sudukattu mallikai and Nithyakalyani. Also referred to as the Rosy Periwinkle or the Madagascar periwinkle. The botanical name being Catharanthus roseus or Vinca rosea. Whew!!!

I love these flowers and decided to do some research on them. Here is what I discovered.

The Rosy Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) or Vinca rosea as it was known earlier, is a native of the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar and is found commonly growing around human habitations in India. This plant is considered to be highly medicinal and was known to African tribals for various cures. It is also used to cure certain types of cancer in children. The alkaloids present in the flower, vincristine and vinblastine, are used in chemotherapy for childhood leukemia. The plant is a known hallucinogen and is toxic if consumed orally.

'Catharanthus roseus' is known as the 'Common' or 'Madagascar periwinkle', though its name and classification may be contradictory in some literature because this plant was formerly classified as the species Vinca rosea, Lochnera rosea and Ammocallis rosea. Furthermore, 'lesser periwinkle' (Vinca minor) may also be called 'common periwinkle'. Both species are also known as 'myrtle'.

Description: In any case, this periwinkle is a perennial, evergreen herb or an evergreen subshrub or herbaceous plant in the dogbane family (Apocynaceae) that was originally native to the island of Madagascar. It has been widely cultivated for hundreds of years and can now be found growing wild in most warm regions of the world, including the Southern U.S. The plants grow one or two feet high, have glossy, dark green leaves (1-2 inches long) and flowers all summer long. The blooms of the natural wild plants are a pale pink with a purple 'eye' in their centres, but horticulturists have developed varieties with colours ranging from white to hot pink to purple. In the wild, it is an endangered plant; the main cause of decline is habitat destruction by slash and burn agriculture. It is also however widely cultivated and is naturalised in subtropical and tropical areas of the world.

Medicinal properties/uses: The plant has historically been used to treat a wide assortment of diseases. It was used as a folk remedy for diabetes in Europe for centuries. In India, juice from the leaves was used to treat wasp stings. In Hawaii, the plant was boiled to make a poultice to stop bleeding. In China, it was used as an astringent, diuretic and cough remedy. In Central and South America, it was used as a homemade cold remedy to ease lung congestion, inflammation and sore throats. Throughout the Caribbean (i.e., in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and other islands), an extract from the flowers was used to make a solution to treat eye irritation and infections (especially in infants). In Africa, the leaves are used for treating menorrhagia and rheumatism. Surinamese boil ten leaves and ten flowers together for treating diabetes. Bahamians take flower decoction for curing asthma and flatulence, and the entire plant for treating tuberculosis. In Mauritius, the leaves infusions are given for dyspepsia and indigestion. In Vietnam, it is taken for diabetes and malaria. Curacao and Bermuda natives take the plant for treating high blood pressure. Indochinese use the stalks and leaves for curing dysmenorrhea.

The 'Nayantara' or the 'Catharanthus roseus' also had a reputation as a magic plant; Europeans thought it could ward off evil spirits, and the French referred to it as the "Violet of the Sorcerers."

Scientific Research: Few plants have generated as much recent interest among scientists and medical communities as the 'Madagascar periwinkle' - the 'Catharanthus roseus'. Western researchers finally noticed the plant in the 1950's when they learnt of a tea the Jamaicans were drinking to treat diabetes. They discovered the plant contains a motherlode of useful alkaloids (70 in all at last count) - the extracts of the entire dried plant contain many alkaloids of medicinal use. Some, such as catharanthine, leurosine sulphate, lochnerine, tetrahydroalstonine, vindoline and vindolinine lower blood sugar levels (thus easing the symptoms of diabetes). Others lower blood pressure, some act as hemostatics (arrest bleeding) and two others, vincristine and vinblastine, have anticancer properties. Periwinkles also contain the alkaloids reserpine and serpentine, which are powerful tranquilizers.

The principal alkaloid is vinblastine, or vincaleukoblastine (vinblastine sulfate), sold as Velban. The alkaloid has growth inhibition effects in certain human tumors. Vinblastine is used experimentally for treatment of neoplasms, and is recomanded for generalized Hodgkin's disease and resistant choricarcinoma. Another pharmacologically important alkaloid is vincristine sulfate or vincristine, sold as Oncovin. Vincristine is used in treatment of leukemia in children.

Using vinblastine and vincristine in combination chemotherapy has resulted in 80% remission in Hodgkin's disease, 99% remission in acute lymphocitic leukemia, 80% remission in Wilm's tumor, 70% remission in gestational choricarcinoma, and 50% remission in Burkitt's lymphoma. Synthetic vincristine, used to treat leukemia, is only 20% as effective as the natural product derived from the Catharanthus roseus.

Because the alkaloids in this plant can have serious side effects such as nausea and hair loss, it is not recommended that people attempt to medicate themselves with periwinkles. For more information, visit: Periwinkle Diseases.

Further research is needed especially on bioactive compounds, means of preparation, and effectiveness of plants and herbal remedies.

Other features: As an ornamental plant, it is appreciated for its hardiness in dry and nutritionally deficient conditions, popular in subtropical gardens where temperatures never fall below 5 °C to 7 °C, and as a warm-season bedding plant in temperate gardens. It is noted for its long flowering period, throughout the year in tropical conditions, and from spring to late autumn in warm temperate climates. Full sun and well-drained soil are preferred. Numerous cultivars have been selected, for variation in flower colour (white, mauve, peach, scarlet and reddish-orange), and also for tolerance of cooler growing conditions in temperate regions. Notable cultivars include 'Albus' (white flowers), 'Grape Cooler' (rose-pink; cool-tolerant), the Ocellatus Group (various colours), and 'Peppermint Cooler' (white with a red centre; cool-tolerant).

C. roseus is used in plant pathology as an experimental host for phytoplasmas. This is because it is easy to infect with a large majority of phytoplasmas, and also often has very distinctive symptoms such as phyllody and significantly reduced leaf size.

Needless to say, we are looking forward to having the 'Nayantara' grace our terrace garden - in all its glory and colours!!!

Note: Information gathered courtesy:

1. Wikipedia

Photographs: (in clockwise order)

1. The 'Nayantara' flower - 'Catharanthus roseus' or the 'Madagascar Periwinkle' - pink colour.

2. The 'Catharanthus roseus' - White colour - with dew drops on it.

3. The 'Catharanthus roseus' - Purple or Mauve colour - with dew drops on it.


  1. I was at the Sanibel Island (Florida) a couple of months back. the main road running across the island is called Periwinkle way, names after the periwinkle flowers that grow everywhere on the island. Needless to say I was thrilled to see nayantaras after so many years! :-)

  2. Wow!!! It must have been a truely amazing sight... rows and rows of the periwinkle flowers... !!!

    Did you take a pic??? If you have... please share it with me.

    I just love nayantaras... they are one of my favourite flowers. :)

    Why don't you have them in your garden as well... ???

  3. i think i have a pic somewhere....will send it to you if i find it.
    my garden??? nijeri thakar jayega nei...aar garden kothay korbo!! ami ek oti briddhya gorib student :-(

  4. Great! Eagerly awaiting the same :)

    'Thakar jayega nei'... eije shhedin bolli je gache jol dili... ???

  5. shey to 'gobeshonar' gach....ami je chashi manush

  6. Ta gobeshonar gacheder majhe ektu jayega nishchoy hobe... check kore dekh... :)

    And thanks a bunch for the lovely pic... !

    I am trying to plant some 'nayantaras' in our garden...

  7. i love these flowers. i grow them plenty in pots. in fact you dont have to collect seeds. their sticks burst open and throw seeds. early rains hundreds of seedlings will grow. they are hardy and grow in almost any soil but see that water donot clog at roots. i am from purulia westbengal...india...iwll be happy to send seeds at my cost to any gardner.

  8. @ Anonymous: Thanks for the info.