The varied flora of Rani Bagh's heritage botanical garden - Mumbai's largest green open public space

Historical Background: The botanical garden of Rani Bagh, established in 1861 by the Agri Horticultural Society of Western India (the Society), has historically been home to a huge variety of flora. Established in 1830 the Society had set up a well laid out botanical garden in Seewri in 1842. However, it was found that the Seewri neighbourhood was not easily accessible to the public and therefore the then British Government took over the Seewri property for a cemetery and in exchange gave a plot of land at Byculla to the Society to establish a botanical garden where the plants from Seewri were duly re-located. This beautifully laid out botanical garden was then called Victoria Gardens, later re-christened V.J.B. Udyan (in 1969), V.J.B. Udyan & Zoo (1980) and most recently, V.J.B. Botanical Udyan & Zoo (2022) – this last renaming to include the golden word, ‘botanical’, was at the initiative of the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation.

Latest Tree Census, 2016: According to a tree census conducted in November 2016 by ‘SAAR IT Resources Pvt. Ltd.’ for the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the botanical garden is home to 4,131 trees of 256 species belonging to 54 botanical families. This survey was restricted to trees and did not include other plants such as shrubs, herbs and climbers. The complete data of the 2016 tree survey (including size, common name, local name, scientific name, family name, flowering season and so on), obtained by us under the Right to Information Act, is furnished here.

Dr. Almeida’s Tree and Vegetation Survey, 2010: earlier official plant survey conducted for the Municipal Corporation in October 2010 by Dr. Marselin R. Almeida, the late renowned botanist and author of the 5-volume Flora of Maharashtra, had listed 3,213 trees belonging to 286 species. This survey was titled, 'Trees and Vegetation Survey of V.J.B. Udyan'. In addition to trees, a total of 853 plant species (shrubs, climbers, herbs etc.) were listed. This information can be seen here. Dr. Almeida’s survey also showed that the Blatter Herbarium had listed as many as 495 plant specimens collected from Rani Bagh since its inception. Significantly, numerous plants had been collected by such luminaries as Father E. Blatter, Father H. Santapau, Father R.R. Fernandes and Dr. M.R. Almeida himself.

The disparity in the tree data of the two surveys (of 2010 and 2016) can be attributed largely to the modified definition of a tree in terms of its girth adopted by the Municipal Corporation and to a lesser degree on additional trees planted in the campus.

A note on the tree data saga: When we began our struggle in April 2007 to protect the botanical garden from the grave threat posed by the redevelopment plans of Municipal Corporation, we acquired a range of tree data. We also acquired surveys, drawings and plans from a host of statutory bodies (BMC, the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and the Central Zoo Authority) under the Right to Information Act. We found that the BMC furnished conflicting and erroneous information. For example, the number of trees and species mentioned in officially obtained data at different junctures varied, species mentioned in lists were not found on the ground, species present at the site did not find place in the lists and so on.

We requested eminent botanist Dr. M.R. Almeida to sift through the surveys and he confirmed that the data was indeed riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Thereafter, we made several representations before the BMC and the MHCC to conduct a fresh tree survey. We argued that if the existing site plan showed the trees plotted or named erroneously, then the redevelopment proposal plan, when superimposed upon the existing plan, would surely yield misleading information.

Shockingly, apart from the tree census, the BMC had no data whatsoever on the huge variety of other plants (shrubs, herbs, climbers etc.) in the botanical garden. This serious lacuna was also pointed out to the BMC.

Dr. M.R. Almeida who was appointed as an expert by the MHCC to help with the appraisal of the redevelopment proposal from the perspective of safeguarding the botanical garden, roundly opposed the BMC's redevelopment plan and stressed the need for a fresh vegetation survey. On May 19, 2010 the MHCC rejected the redevelopment proposal and, among a host of other directions, recommended that a fresh flora survey be conducted. The BMC then assigned the task of listing the vegetation diversity of Rani Bagh to Dr. Almeida who submitted a comprehensive report in October 2010 (details of which are mentioned above).

The great floral diversity of Rani Bagh, its antiquity and heritage status and the inalienable fact that it is Mumbai's most visited park are the most compelling reasons to preserve this city jewel for posterity.

Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation